SUNDANCE MOUNTAIN RESORT — Turns out Sundance founder Robert Redford has turned the other cheek when it comes to dancing cowboys.
With his surprising nod of approval, show producers of the Sundance Summer Theatre are putting the final touches on this year’s program, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "Oklahoma!" set for July 19-Aug. 11.
Just over a decade ago, the once-popular outdoor theater, located near Provo in the heart of Redford’s majestic 5,000-acre Wasatch Range resort, was struggling to fill the seats, according to the resort’s general manager, Chad Linebaugh.
“So, for five years the summer theatre was shut down,” Linebaugh explained. “But at one of my first meetings with Robert Redford when I came on in 2006, he said, ‘Chad, that stage needs to come back to life.'”
Its reinvention included partnering with Utah Valley University’s Department of Theatre and what Linebaugh described as a more “hands-on” approach by Redford when vetting possible shows.
The screen legend, whose iconic role as the Sundance Kid in the 1969 hit "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" helped launch his passion for preserving authentic cowboy lore, stipulated that there be “no singing and dancing cowboys” on a Sundance stage, according to a 2011 Deseret News interview with Linebaugh.
So why the change of heart? How did the Sundance Kid reconcile with Curly McLain?
“We kind of eased him into it,” Linebaugh joked, who pointed out that dancing cowboys appeared at Sundance in 2012 when the theater presented "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."
“It’s important for us to choose shows that take advantage of the natural space and play to the grandeur of the location,” said director and co-producer Lisa Hagen. “Incidentally, many that tend to be a good fit come with a lot of dancing cowboys.”
Linebaugh thinks “Seven Brides” was a turning point for Redford.
“He really likes to come to the show each summer and take in the audience’s reaction,” Linebaugh said. “I think he recognized the contagious energy created onstage with ‘Seven Brides’ and the ecstatic response it received.”
Apparently, dancing cowboys have a way of bringing people to their feet.
The Sundance owner also relishes the theater's pristine mountain atmosphere, according to Linebaugh. The amphitheatre has been rated one of the 10 best outdoor theater experiences in the country by Fodor’s Travel Guide.
“It’s truly a unique experience,” Linebaugh said. “He loves the fact that the snow-capped Timpanogos mountain range serves as the backdrop and the starry sky serves as the theater’s ceiling. You might even spot a hawk flying overhead.”
Indeed, not a bad setting for a musical with a signature song that actually makes reference to hawks “makin’ lazy circles in the sky” while actors point to imaginary ones in the distance. And while wildlife sightings can’t be choreographed into the show, “old Hollywood”-style dancing certainly is, according to Hagen.
“I think one of the smartest things we did was hire an incredible choreographer,” Hagen said of choreographer Nathan Balser, associate chair of Brigham Young University’s Department of Dance. “The choreography is totally original to this show but still holds to the classical musical theater parameters.”
Hagen, who also serves as UVU’s theater department chair, describes casting a larger net this year to bring exceptional talent to Sundance Summer Theatre.
“We invited regional and national video submissions,” she said. “We were able to bring in some talent from around the nation.”
Most of the cast, however, are community actors, including Hannah Pyper Dalley, who is taking on the role of the headstrong farm girl Laurey Williams.
“This is Hannah’s third season doing Sundance,” Hagen said. “As a veteran of this stage, she has a wonderful sense for filling the space and has an awesome spunk and lovely voice.”
Set in the early 1900s, "Oklahoma!" is the rollicking rivalry between the cowboys and farmers. The action centers on Laurey’s courtship with cowboy Curly McLain, played in this production by Jacob Brown. Songs such as “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” and “Oklahoma” have become timeless classics.
“I love the sweeping, romantic music and the complex characterizations,” Hagen said. “I think the audiences who join us under the stars will be swept along as well.”
If you go …
What: Sundance Summer Theatre presents "Oklahoma!"
When: July 19-Aug. 11, 8 p.m., doors open at 7 p.m.
Where: Sundance Mountain Resort, 8841 N. Alpine Loop Road, Sundance
How much: $26-$38