BWW Review: 75th Anniversary Production of OKLAHOMA! at Stages St. Louis is a Bang-Up, Boot-Stompin' Good Time
Oh, what a beautiful production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, directed by Michael Hamilton with choreography by Dana Lewis, musical direction by Lisa Campbell Albert, and orchestral design by Stuart M. Elmore.
In fact, Stages St. Louis knocks it clear out of the pasture with this final show of their 32nd season.
Oklahoma! premiered in 1943 as the first collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and was the first musical to fully integrate narrative song and dance as means to advance the story rather than as pure entertainment. It is Golden Age theatre at its finest - a tale of two love triangles set on the plains of Oklahoma wherein the main dramatic question is which cowboy will get to marry which farmer's daughter. Despite its old-fashioned and arguably masculinist plot, however, Oklahoma! is a favorite among musical theatre patrons, and Stages St. Louis has successfully incorporated several clever modern touches, with much special attention having been paid to evoke freshness in this folksy romanticization of American ruralism.
James Wolk's scenic design, Sean M. Savoie's lighting design, and Brad Musgrove's costumes, for starters, are a visual feast, all utilizing vibrant jewel tones that are invitingly rich and warm. The show opens on a meticulously painted 3-D scene, lit like a sunrise, featuring rolling green fields, wildflowers and crops in the distance. Aunt Eller's farmhouse is rustic and charming, Jud's room in the smokehouse is provocatively creepy, and of course, the surrey with the fringe on top earns big applause, looking exactly the way we envision it should. There are plenty of chaps and cowboy boots, of course, but there are also opulent plaids and stripes, with a special appreciation for Aunt Eller's sage and cantaloupe skirt as well as Ado Annie's bouncy, flouncy pink cupcake ensemble. There are so many vibrant oranges, purples, rusts, blues, and greens in this show, and no detail is left unattended in Musgrove's costuming, including stunning footwear, all impeccably coordinated and true-to-character.
Curly (Blake Price) and Laurey (Sarah Ellis), both making their Stages debut, are perfectly cast in this production, with incredibly capable singing voices in a sincere collaboration, particularly during "People Will Say We're In Love." Ellis sings in earnest and Price responds with dimpled cheeks and believable tension. Their interactions throughout are traditional and charming, but Ellis brings a bit of modernization to the role with her acting, which, while staying true to the character, portrays Laurey as anything but an isolated woman with too few choices. Zoe Vonder Haar, too, is strong and simply magnificent as Aunt Eller, with amusing, expressive performances throughout. The joke delivery, in fact, is perfectly timed with all cast members, and Lucy Moon as Ado Annie Carnes steals the show over and over again opposite the hilarious Matthew Curiano as Ali Hakim, but she is especially brilliant in her version of the solo delight, "I Cain't Say No."
Other notable performances include Con O'Shea-Creal as Will, who genuinely appears to have a rootin' tootin' good time in a rope-twirling dance break during "Kansas City" and a most impressive David Sajewich as the moody, brooding Jud Fry.
The Oklahoma dialect goes in and out for a couple of the actors, but they sure make up for it in the way the entire ensemble has done the work to create fully developed characters, all who clearly have their own back stories. Also, there is something very satisfying about the way this show fits in the Robert G. Reim Theatre, with this cast's powerful, unison voices and the full, whirling, prairie skirts that fill the entire stage in dances that simply sweep us away with a pioneer spirit to turn-of-the-century Oklahoma.
You'll recognize the songs and you'll appreciate a temporary throwback to a simpler time when a rural community of folks come together to dance, renovate the schoolhouse, and do a little old-fashioned matchmaking in the process. You'll want to clap along as this company of true professionals gives you an "Oklahoma hello" now through October 7. For ticket information, call (314) 821-2407 or visit stagesstlouis.org.