When dancer and choreographer Stefano Olivieri got a whiff that a New Zealand production of Oklahoma! was in the air, he started working on the songs immediately. But he didn't have much to do - Olivieri has been a fan of the musical since he was a child.
"It's one of those iconic movies and musicals I've always loved," he says. "Quite a few people will know the songs from it, but won't know where they came from."
Written in the early 1940s by the then new partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein, those songs - Oh What a Beautiful Morning, The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, I Just Can't Say No, and, of course, Oklahoma! - marked the dawn of a new era. Oklahoma! changed the face of theatre when it premiered on Broadway in 1943; in fact, you can lay responsibility for the modern musical squarely at its barn door.
The production was the first to incorporate dance, music, and lyrics that told a story and moved the action on, rather than just hanging within the real action as an interesting musical tack-on.
It won a Pulitzer Prize for drama and was a smash hit and the longest-running show on Broadway at the time, clocking up 15 years until My Fair Lady ousted it in 1956.
Set in the Oklahoma territory in the early 1900s, it tells the story of two cowboys vying with a nasty ranch hand and a travelling peddler for the hearts of the women they each love.
There's Curly (Cameron Douglas), a handsome, shy cowboy who has trouble admitting his feelings to Laurey (Tizane McEvoy); and Olivieri's character, Will Parker, a simple boy who is devoted to Ado Annie, played by real-life friend Ali Harper.
Veterans of the New Zealand stage, Paul Barrett and Geraldine Brophy, will play Ado Annie's father and Aunt Eller, and Brophy is directing as well.
Olivieri is looking forward to playing Parker - he reckons he's one of the best roles in the show. Will is much like him, actually, apart from one crucial detail. "He's a hopeless romantic, a bit of a dimwit, but he gets the laughs. Apart from the dimwit bit I think that's me to a tee."
He loves that the comedic roles often have the best fun on stage.
"People leave remembering little things they may have said or done or the way they acted. That's what's nice about this character."
A consummate performer, the all-singing, all-dancing Olivieri has been competing in dance since the age of 10. He's won every major national Australian dancesport championship, is a 10-times Australian Professional Champion and has taken out world champion titles as well. But he'll be most familiar to New Zealanders as the slim, smiling, snake-hipped ballroom dancing coach on Dancing with the Stars.
He's appeared on the show on both sides of the Tasman several times. In New Zealand, he wrangled Suzanne Paul, Temepara George, and Geraldine Brophy into shape, winning back to back titles with Paul in 2007 and George in 2008.
Producers will be calling upon those talents to help choreograph the Oklahoma! production as well, though he's hoping to focus mostly on his role.
Unlike the usual flow of Kiwi-Australia migrants, Sydney-based Olivieri considers New Zealand his second home. It's so special to him that he and husband Steve Nixon, a manager with National Australia Bank, tied the knot at a ceremony on Waiheke Island in 2011.
"I knew from the first show live to air that I loved New Zealand and New Zealand seemed to love me, and adopt me almost," he says. "I felt that was it, it was a new home for me."
He calls himself "part New Zealander".
"I feel like if anyone ever asked me where I was from, I'd say that. I have such a fondness and love of the country."
He says he didn't really want to go back to Australia after those first four months working on DWTS, picking up other opportunities wherever he could. He was ready to buy property here but then the opportunity came up to start his business in Sydney, Dance XS.
"I decided I should set myself up for the rest of my years." Nixon is also heavily involved. "Sometimes I think my students love him more then me."
Olivieri is thankful that his husband is so supportive of his demanding career; Nixon is taking leave from his job to travel with him for the June run of Oklahoma! It's a tough journey - 19 centres in four weeks.
"It's going to be a really hectic, wonderful time, but something I'm looking forward to. It's good to keep busy and that's what musical theatre is all about - delivering one performance after the next and each one has to be better than the last.
"I can't wait, there are so many wonderful people to connect with again."
- Oklahoma! The Theatre Royal, August 25-26. Tickets $99.90/$85/$79.90/$64.90 from venue or ticketdirect.co.nz, ph 03 548 3840.
- The Nelson Mail
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