BWW Review: UCF's OKLAHOMA! was more than just OK
"Oooook-lahoma! Where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain..." Fun fact- that's the first thing that pops into my head whenever I think about the musical, OKLAHOMA. But, with it's versatile musical scale and it's bold and meaningful storyline, OKLAHOMA is so much more than the story of good ol' country cowboys and farmers trying to get along and the making of a new American state. It's a story of the triumphs and struggles for women in early American life and the conflicts that a local rivalry can bring, all wrapped up in a beautiful love story.
I'll be honest, this musical is hard to make fresh and exciting. It opened in 1943 and it seems like it's been done by every high school, college, and theatre company in America at some point. But the fact that this production was fresh, exhilarating AND it was made up of students in the University of Central Florida's (UCF) theatre department is absolutely amazing. That's not to say that I went in to the show thinking the students couldn't pull it off - quite the opposite. I just wondered how they would bring a new flavor to this musical - and they most certainly did not disappoint!
UCF's production of the show is part of their week-long UCF Celebrates the Arts festival. The festival aims to bring attention to and celebrate the visual and performing arts of UCF students. The theatre department couldn't have picked a better show to pay homage and celebrate the art of musical theater - it was musical-theatre-writing-team Rodger and Hammerstein's first collaboration and it set the standard for musical theatre in a number of ways. More than 250 faculty and students from both the music and theatre departments collaborated to create the production, and it was truly magical in so many ways.
For starters, the set and design teams did a fabulous job of using minimal sets but making the stage feel full and the setting complete. The UCF orchestra students took up about half of the stage (they were amazing!), but they were set apart by a wooden fence that almost made them feel reigned in like horses or cattle (in a good way!)- they felt part of the scenery but your attention was not immediately brought to them. I also loved UCF's use of digital backgrounds and a house set piece that served multiple uses. Versatility is so important in theater, and in a space as large as the Dr. Phillip Center for the Performing Arts' large Walt Disney Theater it would have been easy to use a large number of set pieces (like barrels or bales of hay for example) to fill up the space. I was glad to see they did not go that route and got creative with the space instead.
Madeline Regier played Laurey, a beautiful farm girl with a strong, independent streak. Even though I wasn't anywhere close to the front row of the theatre, Regier's emotion was palpable. The character of Laurey is not an easy one to play - on one hand she seems perfectly happily to go through life independent and free from men or marriage, but as affections from her hired-hand Jud Fry (played by Nick Drivas) go from admiring to something more sinister, she realizes that protection and love from Curly is not something that makes her less of a women or less independent. Regier's Laurey portrays this conundrum perfectly. She never got too comfortable and always had a look of worry in her eyes - weather it was worry about falling in love and losing control, or worry about the impending doom that was Jud Fry. In addition to her acting, her voice was lovely! At times it was hard to believe I was watching someone in college and not a professional actress. I know we will see great things from Regier in the future!
The other lead in the show, Curly, was played by Kyle Laing. He was one of the first characters the audience met in the show, and from the very beginning I knew he was going to be fantastic. With a strong, controlled voice, Laing made my heart jump in the slow, love-song numbers, but he was also commanding and fun in the more upbeat songs. His acting didn't feel forced either - he took pause when the moment called for a tense, heart-in-your-stomach feeling, and his wit and canter were perfect in his banter with the other cowboys or when he was talking with Aunt Eller (played by Stephanie Cabrera). Laing's acting and voice talent seem very versatile, and I'm hoping to see him in future productions as well.
I would be remised not to mention the wonderful portrayal of Ado Annie Carnes by Katie DeRosa. The character of Ado Annie always bothered me in the movie, but for some reason I absolutely loved DeRosa's version. Her voice is absolutely spectacular and she played the character in a very Bernadette-Peters-esque way. Every time her character made an appearance I was delighted!
The only disappointment in the production was that the accents of the Midwestern/country twang were not quite there. It seemed like the actors turned their accent on for some parts and off for others, or they would completely disappear when they began singing. At other times however it was completely the opposite - the accent would be so thick that it was hard to understand just what the actor was saying. I understand though how hard it can be to keep an accent and to figure out just how strong to lay it on.
Overall, UCF's production of OKLAHOMA! was an outstanding night of theatre from amazing students who truly came together to make something great. I'm saddened that the production only ran for two nights as part of the festival (April 7 and 8), but I can't wait to see what the UCF theatre department does next. Yeehaw!
So, did OKLAHOMA! have you leaving the theatre singing O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A! Let me know! Don't forget to follow BWW Orlando on Facebook and Twitter by clicking below. You can also connect with me about this show and all things theatre by following me on Twitter @libbychamps.