Preview: 'Oklahoma' puts Shirley Jones' son Patrick Cassidy in touch with the past


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Patrick Cassidy brings up his mother without a prompt. The proud son of a famous parent, himself a veteran of stage and screen, is directing "Oklahoma!" for Point Park University's Conservatory Theatre Company at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. The venue is where his mother -- Smithton native Shirley Jones -- began her career and where she will be on hand for opening night Friday. The film version made her a movie star at age 18.

Although he's watched that film many times, Mr. Cassidy had never seen a professional stage production of the musical "Oklahoma!" He accepted the directing job as an opportunity to return to Pittsburgh, where he has appeared with musical touring companies and for Pittsburgh CLO, and to spend time with the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.

'Oklahoma!'

Where: Point Park University's Conservatory Theatre Company at the Pittsburgh Playhouse's Rockwell Theatre, Oakland.

When: Today through Oct. 27. Preview tonight, then 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $18-$20; www.pittsburghplayhouse.com or 412-392-8000.

"The truth is, it's a remarkable musical," he said. Years ago, he was offered the lead role of Curly in separate productions of "Oklahoma!" but was unavailable.

"I was always so upset about that because I thought at the time I would have made a really good Curly. So to get to direct it and see it in many ways for the first time, it's been really wonderful. I haven't asked my mother any questions, other than what it was like working with Gordon [MacRae] or the director Fred Zinnemann and things like that but nothing about the show itself. You think about when it was written and the road that it paved. I do believe it's the first musical ever where dance propelled the story forward."

Mr. Cassidy embarked on "a really wonderful detective journey" to study up on the making of the musical, from its roots in the play "Green Grow the Lilacs" to the way the songwriters replaced folk songs with the standards we know today. Among the changes from play to musical is the name of the villain of the piece.

Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein changed Jeeter to Jud, "because I think 'poor Jeeter is dead' didn't ring as true as 'poor Jud,' " Mr. Cassidy said with a laugh.

At a school known for producing Broadway-ready dancers, Mr. Cassidy is working closely with choreographer Zeva Barzell Canali, head of musical theater and an associate professor at Point Park, as he plunges into the uncharted waters of a college production.

After more than 30 years in show biz, he has recently added teacher to his credentials with the Hollywood Stage Academy. But this is his first time directing at a college, where the unique process includes bartering with other directors for cast members. With three productions going on simultaneously at Point Park, he didn't get all of his top picks for the cast of 36.

"In fact, in one case I didn't get my first choice, and yet I couldn't be more over the moon by the choice I did get," he said. "She turned out to be amazing."

Staying in Oakland for the first time and navigating through the car and pedestrian traffic that pours from the campuses is among the ways Mr. Cassidy, 51, feels like he's having a taste of college life for the first time. The Point Park production is his first college experience -- he was on Broadway in "The Pirates of Penzance" before he turned 19.

"I truly wasn't ready to be a lead in a Broadway show," he said. "I was right for the part and I had a pop voice, but I was very naive and kind of all over the place. I think the reason, quite frankly, that Laurey and Curly [on stage] are played by ... guys in their mid 30s, sometimes late 30s, and Laurey her early 30s is because it takes time for young performers to really own being a leading man or a leading lady. If anything, I've tried to instill in our Curly [Stanley Graham] and Laurey [Kirsten Lynn Hoover] the skill and a mindset of what it takes to be a leading man or lady. Like I say all the time, you've got to feel your feet in your boots on the ground. You don't have to do a lot, you just have to feel confident when you walk out on the stage that you are this guy."

He knows, because he has been "this guy." After making his Broadway debut in that 1981 production of "The Pirates of Penzance," he was in Pittsburgh with CLO's "Camelot" and the national tour of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," and back to New York again, including the "Annie Get Your Gun" revival and "42nd Street" with Shirley Jones, who learned how to be "this girl" on the job. The film version of "Oklahoma!" was her first movie role.

Working with the Point Park cast of "Oklahoma!" puts Patrick Cassidy in mind of the ingenue who sang "Many a New Day" and "People Will Say."

"The girl who plays Laurey turned 20 during rehearsals, and she's a kid. And then I think, my mother was two years younger than her. Wow, that just hit me like a bolt." Mr. Cassidy laughed his easy laugh. "It's just so weird to me," he said.

He felt his mother's presence when he walked for the first time into the Pittsburgh Playhouse, where she was honored in 2011 with a Starmakers Award. "I know they are gearing toward this huge move Downtown," he said of Point Park's theatrical companies, "but it has a lot of history for me and emotions, which is nice, and the fact that my mother is going to come for the opening is going to be great," he said.

The actor's proud mother has been in the audience throughout her son's career, from regional productions in Williamstown, Mass., and Washington, D.C., to Broadway. They also have shared the stage many times and plan to do so again next year, when they reprise a concert version of "The Music Man."

"My son Patrick ... plays the lead; he's very talented, and looks and sings so much like his father [Jack Cassidy]," Ms. Jones told the Texas website Theater Jones in April. "Patrick has done seven Broadway shows. And we have a plan: 2014 is the 50th anniversary for the movie, so we want to take a concert version on tour. I'll be Mrs. Paroo for that, too, and we'll show film clips and talk about the movie. There's a particular connection that Patrick and I have with this movie, because I was pregnant with him during the filming, though I wasn't allowed to tell anybody on the set in those days."

The stage version of "Oklahoma!" is celebrating an anniversary of its own this year. It's been 70 years since the show won over audiences with tales of farmers vs. cattlemen, a young couple's rocky courtship, the push for statehood and the corn that's as high as elephant's eye.

Mr. Cassidy was eager to talk about having arrived in Pittsburgh for another historic moment -- the Pirates' 2013 playoff run.

If he has one regret about his visit, it's that he didn't get to a playoff game.

"Other than Los Angeles and New York, I think I've worked here more than any other city. I love this city; my mother is from the city," he said. "I remember being a kid and going to Pirates games, so I know Pittsburgh and appreciate it tremendously."

theater

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960. First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM


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