BWW Review: OKLAHOMA! at JCC CenterStage Theatre
Oklahoma!, the landmark 1943 musical written by famed duo Rogers & Hammerstein, is really having a moment. Though it's been a staple of high school drama clubs and community theatre groups for decades, it's rarely popped up in professional theatre seasons in recent years. Then in 2018 the Oregon Shakespeare Festival made waves by staging a production featuring multiple same-sex couples, non-binary characters, and people of color. This production was quickly followed by another 2018 off-Broadway production at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse--which recently transferred to Broadway--featuring Ali Stoker as a wheelchair-bound Ado Annie. Both productions were/are championed by some and pilloried by others, but it's undeniable that their combined success has led to a resurrection in this dusty old musical theatre chestnut. I don't know if JCC Producing Artistic Director Ralph Meranto intentionally chose it as his 2018/2019 season closer because of its resurgence in the public consciousness or if it happened by coincidence, but the timing couldn't have been better because Oklahoma! hasn't been this talked-about in quite a while.
Oklahoma! is set in farm country outside the town of Claremore, Indian Territory, in 1906. It centers on two separate yet equally torrid love triangles: one between Laurey (Abby Rice), Curly (Jordan Bachman), and Jud Fry (Benjamin Pesce); and the other between Ado Annie (Jennie Gilardoni), Will Parker (Chris Martin), and Ali Hakim (Drew Jensen). Against the backdrop of line dances, fiddle diddies, and plenty of country & western platitudes, both Laurey and Ado Annie struggle to know their own hearts before it's too late.
The JCC's production of Oklahoma! makes the fascinating choice of really leaning into darkness rather than staying glitzy and polished, as is often the case with less thoughtful productions of this show. This artistic choice is most present in Jud Fry, whom Pesce decides to present the character as a brooding and menacing figure, as well as in the hallucination sequence in which Laurie, after partaking in smelling salts, visualizes Jud killing Curly. Oklahoma! always has the capacity to be macabre, especially in Act II, but it's typically not the direction it's taken.
While Oklahoma! isn't necessarily a canvas to display one's acting chops (aside from, perhaps, Jud), its musical numbers are intricate and quite challenging. The whole cast, but particularly Abby Rice and Jordan Bachman, give exceptional vocal performances. Their rendition of "People Will Say We're in Love" is as good as I've ever heard the song performed.
The JCC's production is one of great ensemble chemistry, which is present in both the lively group numbers like "The Farmer and the Cowman" as well as in the dance scenes and fight sequences. These actors blend well to present a cohesive story with believable interaction.
I would be lying if I claimed that it's my favorite musical, or even a musical I typically enjoy; I've always thought the ending in particular is flat and anti-climactic (though Meranto made some interesting choices that take the ending in a slightly different direction). But while it has never been--and still isn't--a show I have much fondness for, the JCC's production of Oklahoma! features ample humor, fantastic singing, and an impressive production design. Fans of the show, you won't want to miss it.
Oklahoma! is playing at the JCC Centerstage Theatre until May 19th. For tickets and more information, click here.