The challenge for the folks of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "Oklahoma!," as the song goes, is getting the farmers and the cowmen to be friends.
But for Michael Bryce, who’s directing that grand musical for Gilbert’s Hale Centre Theatre this summer, the difficulty is simply getting the assembled farmhands and cowpokes to not resemble a mosh pit.
He has to fit 26 actors on an in-the-round stage that measures 18 by 21 feet. And that’s after Hale owner David Dietlein added 6 inches of stage in each direction.
"It’s a potential nightmare," says choreographer Brent Thomas Mills.
Thankfully, Bryce knows a thing or two about corralling actors into something stageworthy. He was at the helm of last season’s successful Red Mountain Community Church production of "Titanic: The Musical," involving a cast of 75 and a pneumatically tilting ship’s hull. But he’s quick to point out that this is his first time directing something in the round.
"I like that it’s closer to the audience," Bryce says during a recent "Oklahoma!" rehearsal. "It’s much more personal. It’s much more exciting."
Bryce is relying less on sets, he says, than costuming, choreography and actorly energy to transport audiences back to the turnof-the-century Indian territory on the verge of statehood, a place where two romantic triangles provide the show’s drama and comedy.
"What I’ve tried to do," he says, "is create a staging where there’s so much excitement, people aren’t saying, ‘Where’s this? Where’s that?’ "
He’s also giving more attention to the musical’s plot — usually a casualty in community theater productions that are more often enamored of show tunes like "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" and the title song.
"The stereotype," Bryce says, "is that it’s song and dance only. But I think it’s a wonderful story."
As far as taming the musical’s ensemble numbers, Bryce confesses to making good use of the theater’s stairways and entrance areas to contain his actors.
"We’re shoving them into the aisles," he says, grinning.
It’s a curiosity that the Hale is even attempting a bigbudget show like "Oklahoma!" in the summertime, when attendance at the downtown Gilbert theater — heading into its third season — takes a dramatic dive. But Hale owner Dietlein says he doesn’t want to follow other year-round Valley theaters in playing it safe.
"I want to be aggressive," he says.
Last summer’s Hale production of "The Pirates of Penzance" pulled in respectable audiences — established fans of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas — but this is the first big general audience production the Hale has attempted during the off-peak season.
"It’s a roll of the dice," Dietlein says, "but I want people to know there is quality theater being done in the summer." ‘Oklahoma!’ facts
• Based on 1931 play "Green Grow the Lilacs" by Lynn Riggs.
• The first collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and book/lyric writer Oscar Hammerstein II. They went on to partner on classic shows such as "Carousel" and "South Pacific."
• First musical to have its original cast recorded on commercially released album.
• Ran 1943-48 on Broadway and saw three revivals there, including a 2002-03 British import from producer Cameron Mackintosh and director Trevor Nunn.
• Academy Award-winning 1955 film adaptation was movie debut for actress Shirley Jones.
• Last professional production in the Valley was a critically mixed, nonunion tour stop in June 2004 at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe.