BWW Review: Theatre Under the Stars' 50th Anniversary Season Celebrates Houston As Home With OKLAHOMA

BWW Review: Theatre Under the Stars' 50th Anniversary Season Celebrates Houston As Home With OKLAHOMA

In the theatre world, your first time seeing Rodgers & Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA! is essentially a rite of passage. You either love it or you don't--and the pendulum can swing either direction depending on the actors, designers, and director's choices. Ever since I sat in my Survey of Musical Theatre class freshman year, watching the 1999 film of Oklahoma! , I've been waiting to see a live production. Whether you are an Oklahoma addict or have never heard of the show before, do your soul a favor and experience this joyful, unreplicable production.


Theatre Under the Stars opened their 50th Anniversary season last night with this landmark production, which is incidentally celebrating its own 75th birthday. Last night was a nod to this gem of musical theatre history and a confident gesture towards the future of TUTS as Houston's Home for Musical Theatre. In a never-before-done collaboration with the Houston Ballet, Theatre Under the Stars' OKLAHOMA! ushers in a new age of artistic engagement among the various organizations nestled in downtown Houston.

BWW Review: Theatre Under the Stars' 50th Anniversary Season Celebrates Houston As Home With OKLAHOMA
The male ensemble of OKLAHOMA!
Photography Credit: Melissa Taylor

OKLAHOMA! is generally considered the most influential musical production there is, defining the structure of the modern musical as we know it today. Winner of a special Pulitzer Prize, OKLAHOMA! ran over 2,000 performances on Broadway in the 1940's and continues to be produced both professionally and recreationally. TUTS' OKLAHOMA! is a gracious and fresh reminder of the good ol' days where overtures were long, audiences were as engaged as the actors, and standing ovations were earned, rather than handed out. And boy, did they earn it last night.

The minute the twenty-four-piece orchestra, led by Musical Director Kimberly Grigsby--and made up of masterminds, I might add--began the Overture, it felt as though the entire audience was brought back to the age of classic musical theatre. The genius of theatre is its universality: our audience in 2018 was as enthralled with the show as the audiences were in 1943, because OKLAHOMA! is timelessly relevant, centering on home and community. There is no better feeling than the sense that an entire audience of hundreds of individuals are on the same page in a single moment. The audience's energy was united in laughter, gasps, and applause, communicating to the actors that the entirety of Sarofim Hall felt at home in those three hours.

BWW Review: Theatre Under the Stars' 50th Anniversary Season Celebrates Houston As Home With OKLAHOMA
Houston Ballet Ensemble Member
Photography Credit: Melissa Taylor

OKLAHOMA! would not have been the masterpiece it was without the involvement of the Houston Ballet dancers. Along with their pointe-shoes and flowing skirts--crafted by Costume Designer Karen Perry--the dancers brought an element of refined grace and skill to the stage. The hypnotic choreography left me wondering when the last time was that I witnessed such high-caliber choreography, vocal abilities, and storytelling in one performance.

With a cast of a whopping 60 performers, in collaboration with the Houston Ballet, and including students from TUTS' Humphrey School of Musical Theatre, it would have been easy for this production to have lacked unity. However, Director Kevin Moriarty and Choreographer Stanton Welch AM masterfully pieced this production together, giving both visual and musical harmony. The presence of Broadway performers, professional dancers, and child performers created a well-rounded production unlike any that precede it.

BWW Review: Theatre Under the Stars' 50th Anniversary Season Celebrates Houston As Home With OKLAHOMA
Sam Simahk (Curly), Priscilla Lopez
(Aunt Eller), and Olivia Hernandez (Laurey).

Photography Credit: Melissa Taylor

Tony-Award Winning Priscilla Lopez led the cast as a picture-perfect Aunt Eller, performing with a sharp-witted outer shell and nurturing inner persona. Lopez wholly embodied that one aunt we all have who never misses the chance to give you a hard time, but is also always a guiding presence.

Olivia Hernandez was right as home as leading lady Laurey, with the voice of an angel and a feisty delivery of the stubborn, witty character. Sam Simahk played Curly with all of the charm and well-meaning mischief you could hope for.

Madeline Hamlet played the lovably honest Ado Annie, who just can't shy away from a sweet-talkin' gentleman. Her comical naivety captured the audience in her song "I Cain't Say No", as Hamlet brought humor and spunk to each moment she was onstage. Her onstage suitor Ali Hakim, played by Hassan Nazari-Robati, earned many laughs in his portrayal of the cunningly charming peddler, while Christopher Cambel brought charisma and humor to the stage as Will Parker, Ado Annie's devoted lover.

BWW Review: Theatre Under the Stars' 50th Anniversary Season Celebrates Houston As Home With OKLAHOMA
Eric Ulloa (Jud Fry)
Photography Credit: Melissa Taylor

Eric Ulloa won me over as the dangerously impassioned Jud Fry, in both his vocal performance, as well as the humane subtleties he brought to his character. Yes, Jud Fry is a violent and reckless man, and Ulloa played this villain exactly how the story necessitated. Still, Ulloa did more than that. He did exactly what an actor should do by showing the audience the dual side of Jud Fry as an isolated man who longed for love and care.

Over time, the theatre has become more presentational, as the fourth wall between the audience and actors seems to grow more obvious. This discounts the very reason theatre is such an irreplaceable art form, erasing the exchange of energy from the actors to the audience and vice versa. Audiences have forgotten that when they attend a show, the quality of a performance is as much determined by their presence as it is by the performers onstage.

BWW Review: Theatre Under the Stars' 50th Anniversary Season Celebrates Houston As Home With OKLAHOMA
The company of TUTS' OKLAHOMA!
Photography Credit: Melissa Taylor

Maybe it was the context of this classic show that placed the audience back in the older days of theatre, or maybe it was the quality of the cast, but last night that fourth wall was burst through completely. This intimate exchange--this acknowledgement of human connection--is what makes live theatre what it is. This couldn't have been more evident on opening night, especially in "The Farmer And The Cowman" where the audience couldn't help but applaud several times in response to the series of impressive choreography.

Theatre Under the Stars' OKLAHOMA! brings the community of Houston back to the roots of musical theatre. Back in 1943, OKLAHOMA! defined musical theatre in a way that was never before conceived, and this production, quite simply, returns the audience to that initial home for the modern musical. OKLAHOMA! will have you leaving the theatre asking yourself, as sung in Act I - "Don't you wish it'd go on forever?"

Photography Credit: Melissa Taylor

Theatre Under the Stars opened OKLAHOMA! in previews on September 11th and will run through September 23rd in special collaboration with the Houston Ballet. Tickets start at just $30. To purchase tickets, visit the Theatre Under the Stars website at tuts.com or call the Box Office at 713.558.TUTS (8887). Email patronservices@tuts.com for information on tickets and subscriptions.

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From This Author Audrey Morabito

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