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MC Presents Oklahoma

Mississippi College senior Nancy Leigh Strum is learning the culture of America's farmers and ranchers of a much different time - the early 1900s - as she plays the part of Aunt Eller in the smash Broadway musical Oklahoma! Opening night for MC's production is Sept. 20.

An MC music major from Clinton, Strum wants to take lessons learned on stage to a Mississippi classroom where she hopes to lead high school choirs next year. "This is really a neat opportunity," she said during a momentary break from daily rehearsals at Aven Hall to get ready for opening night on the Clinton campus. MC's Department of Music production is booked for eight performances through Sept. 30.

A 2003 Clinton High graduate, Strum finished her interview and returned to churning butter on stage like a true Oklahoma farm girl as freshly-washed clothes dried on the line nearby. At a Friday afternoon rehearsal, she calmly recited her lines under the watchful eye of Dana Rice, the show's director and an MC voice professor.

Strum, 22, has landed one of the top roles in the first musical play written by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. The musical is set in the Oklahoma territory outside the town of Claremont. It tells the story of a cowboy, Curly McLain and his romance with a farm girl, Laurey Williams.

"I've watched Oklahoma (the movie) since I was real little," said MC senior Jonathan Watts, 21, of Biloxi, a theatre major playing the part of Curly. He looks the role of a cowboy and sings with "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" with a western twang. But it's bit of a stretch for him to play the part. "I'm not a country boy at all," he said with a smile. He hopes to attend seminary after his MC graduation.

MC senior Byron Johnson, 22, a Terry High graduate, who performed in MC's production of "The King & I" last year, predicts Oklahoma will be a hit here like it was decades ago on Broadway. "Seeing the final product is pretty cool," said Johnson as he watched Friday's rehearsal before the vocal performance major took to the stage as "the other Curly" in the show.

Rice, who's directed operas and musicals since she began teaching at MC in 1998, believes MC audiences, from kids to grandparents, will be in for a real treat. Oklahoma! "is still considered one of the great American musicals," she said. "Even children as young as my daughter, now 7, enjoy this beloved musical."

Years ago, Rice got to perform in an Oklahoma production. Today, she's delighted to pass on her theatre insights to a new generation. "I'm always amazed at the talent that is here on our campus." She's getting help from a colleague. Carol Joy Sparkman, who joined the MC faculty nearly a decade ago, is the musical director for the campus production. "I know that audiences will fall in love with this show and the two casts," Rice said.

History buffs and fans of the musical may know that Oklahoma became a state on Nov. 16, 1907. So it's nearly 100 years later after Oklahoma's statehood and the production of the award-winning musical continues to attract huge audiences on stages worldwide. The musical made its debut in New Haven, Conn. in 1943 before heading to NYC's Broadway where it opened to rave reviews at the St. James Theatre.

While Oklahoma! closed on Broadway on May 29, 1948, the world has seen more than 30,000 productions of the show in more than a dozen languages, including Hebrew, Russian and Japanese. It is the first Broadway musical to be commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp.

The MC production will be at the Williams Recital Hall. The show begins at 7 p.m. on Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $10 for students and $15 general admission and should be purchased in advance. For details, call the music office at 601-925-3440.

PHOTO: Nancy Lee Strum, MC senior from Clinton, and Jonathan Watts, MC senior from Biloxi, play principal roles in MC's production of Oklahoma which will open on September 20th.
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