BWW Review: OKLAHOMA! at Goodspeed Opera House
When Rodgers & Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA! premiered on Broadway in 1943, audiences were introduced to a style of theatre that would soon become a staple of American pop culture - the book musical. The show, borrowing from its pioneer subject matter, itself became a pioneer in the theatrical world, redefining what audiences would come to expect from a Broadway production. It is a wonder, then, that it would take 74 years for Goodspeed Musicals to mount its first production, ever, of this groundbreaking show. And judging by the quality of the show taking the stage each night at the Goodspeed (the second show in its current season), it was definitely worth the wait.
Set in 1906 in the Indian Territory that would soon become the 46th state in the union, OKLAHOMA! tells the tale of the farmers and the cowmen who lived their lives on the land - cultivating crops and herding cattle - and illustrates just a small piece of their simple but fascinating lives. The story centers around Curly McLaine (Rhett Guter) a cowman who has his eye on the strong-willed Laurey Williams (Samantha Bruce) who lives with her Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell) on a farm outside the town of Claremore. Also vying for Laurey's affection is the dark and brooding Jud Fry (Matt Faucher) who is a hired hand on the farm. During the play (which essentially takes place over the course of one "Beautiful Day") audiences are introduced to the larger than life inhabitants of this corner of the territory, including Will Parker (Jake Swain - though on the night I attended, portrayed by Alex Stewart), his wild and free sweetheart Ado Annie (Gizel Jimenez) and her other love interest, Persian peddler, Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano). Rounding out the cast are the inhabitants of the town and surrounding area who are obsessed with the upcoming evening's box social (which is apparently THE place to be for anyone who is anyone in Claremore.)
OKLAHOMA! is, at its core, the romantic comedy of its time. It has soaring classic songs that bring a smile to the face ("Oh What a Beautiful Mornin', "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top", and the title song, to name a few), a love story fraught with conflict and witty banter, pure comic relief portrayed via the other relationships on stage, dark and mysterious characters, and even dramatic (and sometimes violent) conflict. Wrap all of this up with some amazing dancing and beautiful pastoral scenes and you can quickly see why OKLAHOMA! has become the classic it is today.
In Goodspeed's current production, all of these elements come to brilliant life on the Opera House stage. Under Jenn Thompson's nimble direction, these characters become real people dealing with real issues and not just the caricatures that one so often sees in other productions. She captures the beauty (and excitement) of the budding romances, the sense of optimism (and freedom) of the cast, and conveys a realistic "slice of life" in this long lost era in American history.
The cast, overall, is extremely strong and is supported throughout by a hard-working and talented ensemble. In the leading roles of Curly and Laurey, Rhett Guter and Samantha Bruce are playful yet tough and are easily believable as hardened residents of a somewhat unforgiving environment. Mr. Guter's portrayal of Curly is subtler and more suave than past Curlys but what he may lack in booming bravado, he makes up for in his gorgeous dancing (his role in the dream ballet is truly beautiful). Ms. Bruce shows off a beautiful soprano voice which shines in every number, but especially in "People Will Say We're in Love". Her Laurey is strong and determined yet vulnerable underneath. As the wise but tough Aunt Eller, Terry Burrell gives a standout performance eliciting smiles and laughter whenever she is on stage. Gizel Jimenez's Ado Annie is hilariously mischievous and as her beaus Will Parker and Ali Hakim, Alex Stewart and Matthew Curiano are quite funny.
As previously noted, the dancing in this production is exceptional. Katie Spelman's choreography takes full use of the small stage and conveys a sense of kinetic energy that is palpable. The sets by Wilson Chin are absolutely breathtaking. From the farm to Jud Fry's smokehouse, Mr. Chin's sets perfectly illustrate the architecture and simple beauty of the time. The Oklahoma sky changes gloriously from sunrise to sunset, due to Philip S. Rosenberg's nimble lighting, and Tracy Christensen's costumes are the perfect mix of gingham and leather conveying a sense of reality to the characters on stage. Finally, the music, as orchestrated by Dan DeLange and directed by Michael O'Flaherty, as always, was excellent.
So, whether you have seen OKLAHOMA! many times before or you are a newcomer to the show, Goodspeed Musicals' current production is one not to miss. Filled with beautiful music, athletic choreography, and a glorious setting, OKLAHOMA! is sure to get your toes tapping, your hands clapping and to give you a "Beautiful Feelin'" all over.
See a Sneak Peek of Goodspeed's OKLAHOMA! Here:
OKLAHOMA! runs at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT through September 27, 2017. Curtain times are Wednesday at 2:00p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.). For more information, call 860-873-8668 or visit www.goodspeed.org. The Goodspeed Opera House is located at 6 Main Street, East Haddam, CT.
Photo credits: Top photo: O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A!" The cast of Goodspeed Musicals' Oklahoma!, now playing at The Goodspeed through September 27. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Mid photo: "Let people say we're in love!" Laurey (Samantha Bruce) and Curly (Rhett Guter) in Goodspeed Musicals' Oklahoma!, now playing at The Goodspeed through September 27. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Bottom photo: "I don't say I'm no better than anybody else. But I'll be damned if I ain't jist as good!" The cast of Goodspeed Musicals' Oklahoma!, now playing at The Goodspeed through September 27. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski