Until the groundbreaking musical "Oklahoma!" theater dancing was often little more than window dressing for a show. In fact, sometimes the story came to a virtual standstill while big production numbers dominated the stage.
All that changed when Agnes de Mille was recruited to design the dances for "Oklahoma!" And Alicia Krug Freedman, who retired to Oceanside about a year ago, played a pivotal role in that groundbreaking production.
Freedman (known as Alicia Krug back in the 1940s, when "Oklahoma!" was in its heyday) played the role of Laurey in the Broadway production and danced the lead in the show's dream ballet.
Freedman is a senior citizen now, and dancing de Mille's taxing choreography is only a memory. But "Oklahoma!" is still OK in her book--and very much a part of her being.
She is appearing as Aunt Eller in the current production of the classic musical at the Lawrence Welk Village Theater.
Freedman starred in the Broadway show for three years, and then, when it closed, went on the road with the New York company.
She recalls a compliment paid her one night by composer Richard Rodgers as they were leaving the theater: "He said, 'I don't know whether it's just me, but I never enjoyed the ballet so much.' I figured out that I had done the play on Broadway 1,454 times, but this was the greatest compliment I've ever had, and I still treasure it," Freedman said.
"In 1954, when they were casting the movie version of 'Oklahoma!' I was pregnant, so I couldn't audition for Laurey," she recalled. "But when I had my baby and called Agnes, she found another role for me in the movie. It wasn't a starring role, but all the dancers had to be soloist quality. And at least I got a chance to be in the film."
Since then, Freedman has done many plays--musicals and others. But it wasn't until last summer that another opportunity to reprise her "Oklahoma!" days presented itself.
"My husband saw an announcement in the paper about a production of 'Oklahoma!' in Carlsbad, and he told me to go for the audition," she recalled. "I thought the part of Aunt Eller was the right thing for me to go after."
Director Frank Wayne agreed. He snared Freedman on the spot, and she earned rave reviews from North County audiences during that limited run. Now, during Wayne's staging of the show for the Lawrence Welk Village Theater, set to run through April 7, Freedman will be back in the fold, as the spunky Aunt.
"When I was a young dancer, I only thought of her as an old lady," Freedman confessed. "But now I'm gaining insight from playing the role. I'm learning more every time I play the part, and I'm loving her. I'm going to feel very sad when it's all over."
This production of "Oklahoma!" is a scaled-down version of the original extravaganza. The choreographer for the production, Judy Ann Bassing, keeps Freedman's character on her toes. "Even when she's sitting on the rocking chair, I'll have her dancing with her feet," said Bassing.
"Oklahoma!" is such a revered American classic, few musical theatergoers realize it had all the earmarks of a failure in its day. " 'Oklahoma!' was beset with problems. During the tryouts, one critic wrote: 'no legs, no sex, no jokes, no chance.' That's what they were saying, but they were all wrong," Freedman recalled.
The cutting-edge choreography de Mille created, which contained the most integrated dancing segments ever seen in a musical, deserves much of the credit for that success story. Its use of ballet-based dance as a means of advancing the plot--not just as spectacle--changed the course of musical theater. And the engaging musical continues to dazzle, even in productions that only hint at the heights attained by the original.
Bassing has not attempted to re-create de Mille's dances in this production, she said, although the overall look will be the same.
"Agnes de Mille's dances were very innovative at the time. They had never been done on a Broadway stage before. But mine are not as rooted in modern dance. They're more square and country-style theater dance. I'm lucky to have very good dancers in the show, so there will be plenty of dancing."
What will Freedman do when the final curtain drops on the Welk production?
"I don't know," she answered. "I was going to retire as soon as the show was over. But I've said that before."
8860 Lawrence Welk Drive, Escondido
When: Until April 7.
Times: Performances at 1:45 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday;
8 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday
Cost: Matinee and week nights, $26; Saturday night, $31. Additional charge for dinner or lunch before performances.