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Young Thespians Shine in 'Oklahoma!'

The Coastal Rep musical production features youth from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Young Coastsiders showed talent and skill at last Saturday's performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!," this year's offering from young actors trained by Director Michael Lederman and a core of performing arts professionals at the Coastal Theatre Conservatory in Half Moon Bay.

Shown at the Coastal Repertory Theater in downtown Half Moon Bay, the production features young actors ranging in age from kindergarten to eighth grade.

"In 17 years I've seen a lot of miracles on this stage—young kids achieving more than they ever dreamed," Lederman said as he introduced the musical to the audience.

"Our goal is to take every kid and put a spotlight on them," he said.

Indeed, Lederman, Assistant Director Wendy Mansell and Choreographer Kimberly Krol have succeeded in giving children the chance to step out in their own limelight with "Oklahoma!" As is customary with musicals, ensemble players appear in crowd scenes throughout, whether it be standing in choral formation or spinning, twisting, winding and weaving their way around the stage.

Frequently, the ensemble is choreographed in a way which highlights and flanks the lead actors, roles primarily portrayed by the most experienced of the bunch—eighth graders. Peppered throughout the scenes, though, as well as structured into the musical as breaks and entertainment between scenes, are punctuated performances where ensemble members perform solo, or share the stage with no more than anywhere between one individual to two dozen other players (for the very youngest cast members). It's this method that brings the smallest students into focus for the audience.

Solo-ready students who are not featured in a main role also show off their chops—from Clem and Clarence, a classic pair of old-time radio commentators (played by Garrett Glasson and Matthew Andersen) sitting stage left in their WKY Radio booth to the Jasper Sisters (played by MacKenzie Koenig and Phoebe Geller) who sing a sweet duet in peacock blue coordinating frocks, to the more serious but clear-voiced Bobbe Jean Sanders (played by Sami Benitez) singing "Clementine."

Koenig, Geller, and Benitez charmed the audience before the Oklahoma!'s main plot took off through some old-fashioned audience participation, inviting them to sing along to "Home on the Range" and "Clementine." 

Perhaps appropriate for an agricultural town such as Half Moon Bay, the main story of Oklahoma! centers upon earnest cowboy Curly intent on winning local girl Laurey's heart despite competition from farm hand Jud Fry, a loner who also has set his sights on Laurey.

Leads Curly (played on Saturday by Robert Letters) and Laurey (played on Saturday by Rachel Bontempi) did a commendable job of acting plus singing in clear, focused voices which were pleasing to the ear. Vocal coach Amy Cowan (who is also a music teacher at Sea Crest School) did a fine job shaping performances of all supporting musical actors as well.

But poise and professionalism were perhaps the most impressive aspect of the night's singing and dancing feats. Though a handful of actors forgot the words while performing a song, each and every one gracefully paused through the few seconds of his or her memory lapse and picked up seamlessly along with the music once the lyrics returned to mind.

Giggling, knee-jerk reactions of embarrassment and visible remorse—staples in a typical adolescent's repertoire—were nowhere to be found on the stage.

"It teaches a lot of confidence and how to react in the real world, where everything's not comfortable and smooth," said Yvette Shelton, Half Moon Bay resident and the mother of two daughters who performed in the ensemble Saturday evening.

"What the kids learn here carry over to other aspects in life—for example, you mess up in class," Shelton said. "Tonight the kids forgot their lines quite a few times—but the others in the cast cover each other, so it's not even noticeable to anyone in the audience," she said.

Shelton said that the voice of her older daughter Juliet—who played the lead role of Laurey on Friday evening's opening show—cracked while performing one of the songs.

"But she kept on going and didn't hesitate," Shelton said, "because of the training. The confidence these kids have is something you just don't see every day," she said.

Oklahoma! opened on May 6 and runs until May 15. Show times are 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. on Sunday. All seats are $20. You can buy tickets online here or by calling the box office at (650) 569-3266. For more information, call the theater at (650) 726-0998 or email them at info@coastalrep.org.

Coastal Repertory Theater, 1167 Main St., Half Moon Bay

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