BWW Review: Celebrate a Classic with OKLAHOMA! at Skylight Music Theatre
Is there a top-notch rummage sale happening at the Skylight or is it just a backdrop for a musical? Waiting for the lights to dim, take in the marvelous clutter of instruments and antiqued-farmhouse aesthetic that fills the Cabot stage. There are rows of hanging windchimes and cowbells, percussionist pots and pans, a wooden piano, a stand-up bass, and a violin. All lay in wait as musicians and actors slowly trickle in to fill the scene with song.
The year is 1906 and Oklahoma is on the cusp of statehood. The story mostly follows a day in the life of cowhand Curly McLain and his attempt to court Miss Laurey Williams to the box social. The two play a game of cat-and-mouse -- brazen flirting one minute, cold shoulders the next. At first, the cold shoulders win out as Laurey agrees to go to the social with the sullen, unsettling Jud Fry, the hired hand at Laurey's farm, just to spite Curley and make him jealous. There's also a delightful secondary love story between the coquettish Ado Annie and the goony Will Parker.
Hailing from 1943, Oklahoma! was a revelation in its day. Per the Skylight's handy-dandy audience guide, "Most musicals were stories with songs added in where convenient, but they didn't really advance the plot. Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! was the first fully-integrated musical play, using every song and dance to develop the characters and the plot... After Oklahoma! the musical would never be the same."
It's neat to know how critical Oklahoma! was in terms of how it helped shape musical theater as we now know it. See this show and you're seeing a bit of history. That said, you're also seeing something a little dated. That's the trouble with musicals from this era -- there's usually something that will make your skin crawl. The lurking, looming Jud was always meant to do just that, so that's as it should be.
But when our hero Curly sings "Poor Jud is Daid" in a casual attempt to convince his oafish, slow-witted enemy to commit suicide, one can't help but cringe. Are we rooting for this guy? Is this just some twisted, dark humor that we all need to accept for the sake of the story? Maybe. And, to remain spoiler free, what about that ending and how quickly everything gets wrapped up so neatly? The narrative choices in Oklahoma! certainly inspire discussion in 2019.
At the Skylight, the show itself, under the ever-awesome direction of Jill Anna Ponasik, also inspires laughter, sighs, and much-deserved ovation. The set is simple: just the aforementioned artfully-staged collection of instruments set against a backdrop of open sky. The cast of 12 is small but strong, each character thoughtfully cast and pulling their weight.
As our leads, Lucas Pastrana's Curly and Brittani Moore's Laurey are a darling duo. Pastrana makes for a strapping young cowhand -- confident, clever, and amorous. He's got that witty, knowing glint in his eye, the kind you'd expect from a charmer. Pastrana sings the bass-baritone part with wonderful warmth and apparent ease. An all-around solid pick for Curly.
The relationship between Curly and Laurey hinges on a lot of coy affection and banter, which Pastrana and Moore deliver nicely. I wouldn't call their chemistry all-out fireworks, but the two portray a courtship that's sweetly charming. As Laurey, Moore is at once wide-eyed and winsome, sassy and steely. She's wonderful. Moore is also a songbird with a lovely, impressive range and pretty quality to her voice. At times, she was sadly just a little hard to hear over the music. Whether that was due to the occasional softness of singing or to the mics, I'm not sure.
Supporting our two young lovers are Laurey's Aunt Eller, played by Cynthia Cobb, and friend Ado Annie, played by Hannah Esch. Cobb makes for an Aunt Eller who is feisty and strong in both voice and attitude. Esch's Ado Annie is a definite crowd favorite -- a downright hilarious, firecracker of a performer with a powerful belting voice and spot-on comedic instincts.
Ado Annie waffles between two suitors: the aforementioned townie Will Parker (Sean Anthony Jackson) and the worldly, sleazy traveling salesman Ali Hakim (Ethan D. Brittingham). With two funnymen this likeable vying for Ado Annie's affection in this low-stakes secondary romance, it doesn't much matter which of them wins the girl in the end. The fun is all in the wooing.
Also deserving of a shout-out is Jeremy Peter Johnson, this Oklahoma!'s Jud Fry. He's both fearsome and pathetic, making one wonder if you aren't supposed to feel a little sorry for the guy. Regardless, kudos to Johnson for giving such a layered performance. It can't be easy playing the character everyone hates -- or, to use my mother's choice of words, the resident "slime bucket."
Altogether, the cast puts on a tight musical performance. The few true dancers are exceptional, namely the duo of Shephanie Staszak and Christal Wagner. Simply enchanting. A momentary music battle between percussionist Michael "Ding" Lorenz and violinist Pamela Simmons is a fun way to really make the musicians a part of the story. The entire ensemble shows their combined power through some glorious harmonizing in the show's titular song.
Some of this unbridled delight is a credit to how Rodger's music and Hammerstein's lyrics hold up so well over the decades. While the narrative may have its flaws, just like most narratives from over half-a-century ago, it's hard to argue with gorgeous melodies and sweet sentiments. Romance and music stand the test of time, maintaining Oklahoma! as a musical theater classic.
How will it stand up to the next 75 years? Impossible to say. I know they're doing something newfangled in the 2019 Broadway revival, setting the story in more modern times. And this Skylight production is certainly more stripped down, relying on simple orchestrations, bare-bones sets, and a small ensemble to achieve something great. A production like this allows the strongest bit of Oklahoma! -- the music -- to shine. It's creative decisions like this and give shows like Oklahoma! the best chance at survival.