BWW Reviews: Oh, What a Beautiful Evening! OKLAHOMA Wows Austin Audiences
There's a reason why Zilker Theatre Productions is now in its 56th year, and that reason is quality. Every year, without fail, Zilker produces an exceptional piece of musical theatre, and this year is no different. Their current production of Oklahoma! is a joy to watch and a treat for all audience members.
And that even includes me. A self-described theatre snob, I have my opinions about Rodgers & Hammerstein. While they were pioneers of musical theatre, I in no way believe they wrote the best shows ever produced. Many of their songs and characters are interchangeable ("If I Loved You" from Carousel is awfully similar both lyrically and melodically to "People Will Say We're In Love" from Oklahoma), their shows are overlong despite overly simple plots (This one's driving force is, seriously, a charity auction), and racism is peppered throughout (Bloody Mary in South Pacific, for example). Musical theatre has evolved since the days of Rodgers & Hammerstein, and writers that have come along since-such as Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown-have tackled deeper subjects, created more well-constructed characters, and written songs that are more interesting and complex.
So why then is Oklahoma! still produced? Well, in short, it's Oklahoma! There's something about this show-which was groundbreaking when first produced in 1943 due to its integration of its songs and dances into the story-that still works with modern audiences. It may not be as complex or deep as shows that have come since, but it's a charmer, and when produced like this, it's an absolute knock-out.
The simple plot follows a cowboy, Curly, and a farmgirl, Laurey. Curly likes Laurey, and Laurey likes Curly, but neither will admit it. Their story is quite different from the secondary plot involving another cowboy, Will Parker, and his fiancée, Ado Annie. Will and Annie clearly like each other and are happy to admit to it, but the problem is Annie likes any guy that comes along. For Will and Annie, it's a case of Boy likes Girl, but Girl likes Boy and Boy and Boy and Boy. Added to the mix is Laurey's brooding hired hand, Jud. Judd wants Laurey, and although she wants nothing to do with him, she has no problem using him to make Curly jealous.
Co-directors M. Scott Tatum and Courtney Wissinger have wisely cast this show younger than most productions do. While Curly, Laurey, Will, and Annie are typically played by actors in their 30s, here they're all in their teens or early 20s. Older characters like Aunt Eller are also kept on the younger side, and the entire ensemble is rather young as well. The choice for younger casting makes sense for a number of reasons. First, it was rare to grow to old age out on the frontier. Anyone who didn't die of dysentery by fifty was probably the oldest person in town. But more importantly, the younger casting helps the story. None of the dilemmas that the characters find themselves in are that large, and yet they all need a nearly 3 hour show to figure out how to fix their problems. If the characters were in their 30s, we'd call them stupid, but when they're in their 20s, we call them naïve.
The young cast has no problem creating believable characters or an entertaining show. The ensemble wows in the many show-stopping numbers, courtesy of choreographer Courtney Wissinger. The men's ensemble number, "Kansas City," is robust and athletic, but the dream ballet at the end of Act One is a true standout. While many productions cut the ballet (it's 15 minutes long and challenging for both the choreographer and the performers), it's one of the most breathtaking moments of this production. Wissinger pays homage to the iconic original choreography by Agnes DeMille, but she doesn't copy it. Her choreography is graceful, elegant, and technically challenging. Though the demands of the number are high, the entire cast, especially Ian J. Bethany as Dream Curly and Grace Morton as Dream Laurey, make it look easy.
The memorable choreography and ensemble are matched by equally memorable leads. Michelle Hache, who played Maria in Zilker's 2012 production of The Sound of Music, has a smaller part here, but her take on Aunt Eller is brilliant. Her Aunt Eller is strong enough to go toe to toe with the men around her, and Hache's comedic timing makes her a crowd favorite. Zac Crofford makes quite an impression as the menacing Jud Fry. There's a dark, threatening air about him, but Crofford also plays him a bit like a misunderstood societal outcast which gives a relatable side to the otherwise cardboard villain. As Ado Annie, the young Molly McCaskill is absolutely delightful. She gives the character a bubbly personality and brassy singing voice that I'd argue every comic female lead should have. J. Quinton Johnson is just as fun as Will Parker. Johnson has personality and energy in spades. The UT student is a showman in the making and a sensational dancer.
But the standouts of the show are Sarah Howard as Laurey and David Barnes as Curly. Howard's take on Laurey is far more stubborn, strong, and self-assured than I'd assume Rodgers and Hammerstein expected the character to be. That's in no way a bad thing; you'd have to be a strong woman to survive in the frontier. And though there's some well-placed grit in her performance, Howard soprano singing voice is nothing short of breathtaking. As Curly, Barnes couldn't be more perfectly cast. With his all-American good looks, megawatt smile, playfully arrogant demeanor, and classic Broadway voice reminiscent of John Raitt, it would be challenging to find a better Curly than Barnes. When the two are combined, the flirty chemistry between Howard and Barnes is palpable.
The only member of the cast that seems a bit off the mark is Leslie Hethcox as Ali Hakim, the Persian traveling salesman and Ado Annie's guy on the side. Hethcox gives virtually the same performance he gave as Mr. Mushnik in Zilker's 2013 production of Little Shop of Horrors or the Barber in Austin Playhouse's 2013 production of Man of La Mancha. There's no denying that Hethcox is a strong character actor, an even stronger dancer, and a comedian who can easily land a joke. The problem is that he has a tendency to chew the scenery and push for a laugh on every line. There are some lines that are designed to get laughs and others that are there merely to get to the next line. If Hethcox could rein his performance in, he'd be outstanding, but right now he's distracting and almost in a show of his own.
But overall, Oklahoma! is an outstanding, well-crafted production of a classic musical. This is one that will please the entire family, and it's a must-see.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 50 minutes, including one 20 minute intermission.
OKLAHOMA!, produced by Zilker Theatre Productions, plays the Beverly S. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater located in Zilker Park (2201 Barton Springs Rd, Austin TX 78704) now thru August 16th. Performances are Thursday - Sunday at 8:30pm. Admission is free (donations are encouraged), and general admission seating begins at 6pm. For more information, please visit www.zilker.org