Director/conductor Simon Gray has got good reason for his loyalty to Southwick Opera. They were the company that gave him his cherished early chances.
Simon is directing their latest production, Oklahoma! at The Barn Theatre, Southwick from May 9-12 – the latest chapter in an association which goes back years.
“I started with Southwick Opera when I was about 11,” Simon recalls. “My mother was in the company and I did quite a lot with them as a child. I then went off to college and music school and I can’t remember when I came back with them. It must have been 2003 or 2004.
“One of the reasons I enjoy it so much is that they gave me so many opportunities when I was young. They used to let my mum bring me to rehearsals and that was when I fell totally in love with this world. I used to beg her to take me to rehearsals and I would sit and watch, and if there was a child needed for something, they would let me do it. When I got older, I was able to sing in the chorus, and early on I got my chance to conduct with them.
“I was 15 when I did my first musical director, though that was not with them. I did my first opera with them when I was 18, and that was Aida. And my brother directed. He was 15!
“There are not many people involved with the company then who are still around now, but they are a great company to work with. They are always open to new ideas, and if they can’t cast certain roles, they are happy to bring people in. With a lot of groups, you have to be a member before you can audition. But Southwick Opera are always open. And for a relatively-small company, it has got a very good standard, especially when they do opera.
“They let me choose the shows, but I always try to give them several alternatives, though I always try to give them something that is age appropriate.
“They have a number of older people, so I could never go along and suggest West Side Story or Grease. I try to choose something that has got the right mix of ages, like the shows we have done in recent years, Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun and now Oklahoma!
“Oklahoma! is a show packed with great songs. Almost every song is a classic, and it is a very interesting story.
“And as is often the case with Rodgers & Hammerstein, there is a slightly-darker side that creeps in among the jollity which is always very interesting to direct.
“With The Barn, the challenge for me is to try to make the pictures look nice with quite a lot of people on a fairly-small stage. It is not the smallest stage I have ever worked on, but there are 38 people in the cast.”
Part of the attraction also is that Oklahoma! is a significant musical: “It was a turning point in the writing of musicals in as much as the songs and the dancing all moved the action on, rather than just stopping for a dance, stopping for a song. They all became integral to the plot. It’s how musicals all are now, but this was the first that did that.
“It was Rodgers & Hammerstein’s first collaboration, and with the musicals that they wrote afterwards, they continued to follow suit.”
The five performances at the Barn Theatre, Southwick take place from May 9-12 at 7.30pm with a matinee on Saturday at 2.30pm.
Tickets are available from 01273 597094 or online from www.southwickcommunitycentre.org.uk.
For other stories by Phil, see: https://www.chichester.co.uk/author/Phil.Hewitt2