It was Friday night, April 29, at Fairfield Ludlowe High School. As we settled into our seats, we could hear quiet conversation, laughter and the sound of the orchestra tuning up. We knew we were in for a great performance, but we just didn't know how great.

Slowly the lights dimmed and the overture had us humming the wonderful music of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Then ... curtain. And just as we got our first look at the wide-open spaces of the territory about to become a state-- "Oklahoma!" -- there sat Aunt Eller (Heather Hayes) downstage in front of her farmhouse, probably churning butter.

Suddenly Curly, the affable cowboy (Steve Autore), set the tone for the show with the popular "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin." His strong voice grabbed the audience, and we knew immediately that, indeed, this was going to be one beautiful evening. This young man is very talented, and we both remembered him as Professor Harold Hill in "The Music Man," in which he also stepped up to a very difficult role and nailed it.

Soon after, Laurie (Allison Benko) joined Aunt Eller and and Curly onstage for another popular number, "Surrey With a Fringe on Top," and displayed star quality and a voice that was one of the more beautiful we've heard in the many shows we've attended.

We were also captivated by her wonderful renditions of "People Will Say We're in Love" and "Out of my Dreams" and found her portrayal of Laurie to be honest, touching and real.

But the real show stopper was Cassie Carroll as Ado (that's ay-doo) Annie, who belted out "I Cain't Say No" with a spirit and energy that never wavered throughout the evening. We sat in front of her mom and made a point during intermission of saying how special the performance was. This girl has unusual talent, and the role was made for her. She is definitely going to go someplace in the theater.

Matt Zilinyi as Ado Annie's real love interest, Will, kept growing in his role all evening and gave us a terrific performance. His opening number, "Kansas City" was crisp and lively and the addition of a little dancing showed us Will's warm and fun-loving side.

Heather Hayes put a wonderful face on Aunt Eller throughout the play and gave us warmth and humor, tinged with good-old fashioned Oklahoma toughness and spunk. She opened Act II with "The Farmer and Cowman," livening things up with the stiff, robotic farmers and cowboys and creating a warm and friendly atmosphere among these rivals.

Terrance Edwards' Jud Fry was powerful and convincing and downright scary. His voice was strong and his acting was excellent. This Jud proved that Laurie had a lot to be frightened about, and he was just unpredictable enough to give any audience the willies.

The remainder of the cast, way too numerous to single out, was outstanding -- especially the dancers in the "Out of my Dreams" ballet, which was beautifully done.

"Oklahoma!" like all of Frances Kondziela's (Ms. K) productions, was a clear success, and we left, as always, feeling so upbeat. That exuberance doesn't happen by accident. It takes the genius mixed with tenacity that Ms. K brings to every production.

We go way back with Ms. K to her days when Fairfield Warde was Fairfield High and our older daughter Stacey was in "The King and I." Then and now, we marveled at how this amazing teacher/director brought out the best in Stacey. Ms. K took students with all levels of talent, anxieties, fears and dreams and spun them, like flax into gold on the stage.

Ms. K's students come through for her, because she comes through for them again and again. These productions are labors of love for her, and that comes through in virtually every performance.

When the show, which was dedicated to seniors, ended, each senior said a few words about his or her experience. All lit up when they mentioned Ms. K and all she had done for them. She is truly a special person and a special director.

We've commented repeatedly that Ms. K seems to have that necessary sixth sense about who will fit best into the various roles of a drama or musical. And she's always right. The actors and their roles just fit.

For those behind the scenes, the situation is no different. When Ms. K brings everyone onstage at the end, whether someone is on costumes, lights, scenery, makeup or clean up, the audience feels that the person really wanted to be part of this production.

The cast and crew are family, and they're excited to be part of Ms. K's family for the life of a particular production. We've seen that, especially during a recent cast party for another production. The students were all animated, connected and alive. That's theater under Ms. K.

My wife and I know that when we walk through the door of the latest production, whether it's at Fairfield Ludlowe, Fairfield Warde, Fairfield Prep or teen theater, we won't be disappointed. The hard work reflects brightly in the end product.

The students in our high schools are tremendously talented and it's no accident that the arts programs we offer give them the best opportunity to showcase their talent. But it takes a very special director to get that talent out in the open. And Ms. K is that person. She is the glue that brings every production together and makes it work. She cares about her students.

We think she's doing mighty fine, "Oklahoma!" and we can't thank her enough for her work and dedication.

Steven Gaynes' "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.