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The show goes on

Calaveras High School students, alumni premiere ‘Oklahoma!’ one year after COVID-19 cancellation

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Lead actors Amaya Halepota, left, will play farm girl Laurey, and Zachary Zahniser will play charming cowboy Curly in Calaveras High School's production of "Oklahoma!" June 17-20.

It is a triumphant return to the stage—or rather, the field—for the cast of Calaveras High School’s production of ‘Oklahoma!’

Along with all in-person classes, the spring musical was canceled in March of 2020 due to COVID-19. After several months of memorizing lines, choreography and cues, cast members were given just 36 hours’ notice before opening night: the stage lights would remain dark for the foreseeable future.

It was a “heartbreaking” loss, remembered Zachary Zahniser, who had been nervous and excited to play a lead role, charming cowboy Curly, in his first-ever high school production.

“Having that show right there and having it ripped away from you for a whole year kind of sucks,” he said.

That day, the students gathered onstage and cried, unsure of what the future held. Yet play director and teacher Ann Mazzaferro made a promise that the show would go on at a later date, whenever that may be.

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Director and teacher Ann Mazzaferro (seated at center) runs through a scene with actors Amaya Halepota and Michael Barci. 

“(She said,) ‘I don’t care if you all are 30. When this is all over, we are going to do the show,’” lead actress Amaya Halepota, 18, who plays farm girl Laurey, recounted Mazzaferro’s words.

Halepota, like many of her castmates, was doubtful about the return. As the months turned into a year, some of the cast members graduated, and their hope dwindled. But in spring of 2021, it was announced that the show was back on for June 17-20.

“We are very persevering,” 18-year-old Stella Porteous, who plays the brazen Ado Annie, said about her castmates. “(Mazzaferro) kept her promise to us. Whatever she needed to do, she made sure we put on this show again.”

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Actors Zachary Zahniser (left) and Michael Barci, who plays the brooding Judd Fry, practice a choreographed fight on the set of "Oklahoma!"

Some cast members canceled summer plans to join the revival. Samantha Leach, 17, who plays the indomitable Aunt Eller, gave up visiting friends out of state so that they could visit her instead and watch the show.

“I feel like I had moved on from a lot of things here. It was a little bit hard at times to convince myself to do it,” said Leach, who just completed her first year studying business at Babson College in Massachusetts. “I feel like I owed it to the program.”

A former Drama president at Calaveras High School, Leach, as well as current president Anthony Barci, sought to encourage other cast members with their return. For both, there will be closure in finishing what they started and saying goodbye to friends they had not seen since March 2020.

Lead actors Halepota and Zahniser also felt the pressure to set an example through their own enthusiasm.

“I’ve been ready for it,” said Zahniser, 17, who will be joining the United States Air Force in October. “I’m going to do this show if it’s the last thing I do.”

New beginnings

On a bright afternoon in June, boisterous teenagers sing out to a sprawling soccer field and giggle together on the sidelines. As Mazzaferro shouts directions, they dance around one-dimensional set pieces, which draw an added whimsy from the outdoors.

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Actress and co-choreographer for "Oklahoma!" Emma Darmsted dances through a dream sequence in the play.

Post-Covid ‘Oklahoma!’ is an entirely different show, the cast assures, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The new location not only promotes pandemic safety but also lends itself poignantly to the story of love, longing and loss that will play out against the imaginary flatlands of early 20th century Oklahoma. Stage lights installed by technical director David Duggan will illuminate the field for the second act. Audience members will turn their lawn chairs within the wheel-like set to view the migrating action. It’s a daringly immersive production, but these young people are ready for the challenge.

“It was a very crazy, emotional time for all of us when Covid hit, but it’s becoming something new now,” Leach said. “I was scared of going back and not living up to the previous show’s expectations. The longer it grew, the more it came a little bit closer to a new production.”

Through the trials of the past year, the script of ‘Oklahoma!’, though nearly 80 years old, has become seeped in greater meaning. The cast found themselves in the subtext.

“It’s not just this weird, nasty love triangle between a feisty farm girl, some dirty farmhand and a cocky cowboy,” Halepota said. “It’s (about) becoming a new state in the American territory. It’s about endings bringing new beginnings. It’s about moving on and looking forward.”

“We’re getting through it,” Zahniser added. “In that last number of that beautiful song.”

Performances will be held at the Upper Field at Calaveras High School, June 17-20, at 7 p.m. nightly. Tickets are $12 for adults, $8 for guests 18 and under. Tickets must be purchased or reserved prior to the performance and will not be sold at the door. Guests must bring their own chairs or blankets for seating. For ticket purchases and more information, visit calaveras-high-school-theatre-arts.ticketleap.com/oklahoma/. Reservations can be made by email at amazzaferro@custudents.net, or by calling (209) 754-1811, ext. 5213.

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Dakota graduated from Bret Harte in 2013 and went to Davidson College, NC where she earned a bachelor's degree in Arab studies. After spending time studying in the Middle East and Europe, she is happy to be home, writing about the community she loves.

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