As a musical theater-obsessed kid growing up in San Luis Obispo County, opera singer Gabriel Manro was sure he was destined for stardom.
But instead of landing the lead in Atascadero High School's production of "Oklahoma!", he wound up in the chorus with a chicken puppet on his hand.
"The whole show, I was terrible at upstaging people," Manro recalled with a chuckle. "I really laid the ham on thick."
Nearly 30 years later, Manro — a two-time Grammy Award winner who sings with the Los Angeles Opera — is the star of Opera San Luis Obispo's production of "Oklahoma!" Coming to the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo on Mother's Day weekend, it's one of the biggest shows on the Central Coast event calendar.
A turn-of-the-century love story set on the American frontier, "Oklahoma!" represents the first collaboration between two titans of theater: composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II. The musical opened on Broadway in 1943, earning a Pulitzer Prize, and later inspired an Oscar-winning movie.
That 1955 film was “one of the most beautiful, most perfect pieces that was, thankfully, immortalized … on a Hollywood screen," Opera SLO artistic director Brian Asher Alhadeff, who’s modeled his company’s production of “Oklahoma!” after the movie version.” "I’m definitely doing my best to capture that lush soundscape of that Hollywood era.”
"Oklahoma!" opens in 1906, with the Oklahoma Territory on the cusp of statehood.
Lovely, headstrong Laurey (April Amante), who lives on a farm with her tough-as-nails Aunt Eller (Dawn Spare), is torn between two men: confident cowboy Curly (Manro) and sullen farmhand Jud (William Powell III).
Laurey isn't the only one with love troubles. Her flirtatious friend Ado Annie (Kate Stephens) just "cain't say no" to the affections of peddler Ali Hakim (Dylan Thomas) and cowboy Will Parker (Stefan Miller).
Their romances play out against the background of a fierce feud between ranchers and farmers over fencing and water rights. (That agricultural squabble may sound familiar to San Luis Obispo County residents, Alhadeff said.)
According to Manro, "Oklahoma!" celebrates a simpler way of life with memorable songs such as "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and "People Will Say We're in Love."
"It's just a real fun musical," he said.
In many ways, Manro added, "Oklahoma!" reminds him of his upbringing on a 10-acre ranch in Templeton. As a boy, he won the Little Cowboy contest after riding his pony in Paso Robles' Pioneer Day Parade.
"I'm definitely going back to my roots," said the singer, who graduated from Atascadero High in 1991 and earned a master's degree in music from Cal State Northridge in 2000.
He's performed with groups across the United States and Europe, appearing in roles ranging from President Abraham Lincoln in Golden Gate Opera's premiere production of "Lincoln and Booth" to villainous vizier Jafar in "Disney's Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular" at Disney's California Adventure theme park.
Manro came back to the Central Coast in 2015 for Opera SLO’s production of two one-act operas, “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci.” (How’s this for a meet-cute? The singer met his girlfriend, “Oklahoma!” stage manager and assistant stage director Justine Prado, backstage.)
"He's a wonderful artist. He's very expressive. He's very original," said Alhadeff, who’s since brought Manro back for a few gala fundraisers.
Now he’s put the singer at the center of "Oklahoma!" – marking the second time the opera company has produced a Broadway-style musical, following a successful production of "Showboat" in 2014.
“Oklahoma!” isn’t just a showcase for Manro’s talents, either.
Conducted by Alhadeff with help from stage director Edna Garabedian, choreographer Andrew Silvaggio and chorus master Paul Osborne, the show – advertised as a citywide arts collaboration – brings together local talent from Civic Ballet San Luis Obispo, Deyo Dances, Studio @ Ryan's American Dance and the Central Coast Children's Choir.
"Opera is the Olympics of classical music. It's where all the classical arts converge together on the same stage," Alhadeff explained, including music, dance and theater. "In order for an opera company to really have the ability to grow to its full extent, you have to have a thriving classical arts community around it.”
He added: "In San Luis Obispo, we're finding that the formula for success is to make something large and expansive … that brings everybody together."
Opera SLO’s take on “Oklahoma!” is indeed expansive. The company’s full-fledged production, which features massive, two-story sets by Rick Adamson and colorful costumes by Randon Pool, boasts 20 dancers, 32 chorus members and 42 musicians, Alhadeff said.
"If you go and see 'Oklahoma!' at (a local theater), you're going to see a very intimate, small production (done) to prerecorded music in a small venue," Alhadeff said, adding that such musicals "were originally written to be large pieces."
Opera SLO, he added, is producing those shows in the grand manner in which they were originally intended. According to Manro, such massive shows are rare for a performing arts group of Opera SLO’s size.
"Opera SLO is a gem," the singer said. "It's this little opera company that does these incredible, big productions" on par with those in major metropolitan areas.
"Everyone should be going to these productions," Manro added. "They're really something."
2 p.m. and 7 p.m. May 12, 2 p.m. May 13
Harman Hall, Performing Arts Center, Cal Poly
$23 to $77