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Theater Review: Oklahoma!: ‘Oh, what a beautiful evening’

July 7, 2010

By Bill Beard

I humbly confess I have often sworn I would be perfectly happy if I never had to sit through the musical Oklahoma! again! So, what happens? Here I am…after loving the Timber Lake Playhouse production of Chicago earlier this month, and after having severe storm weather cause their Steel Magnolias to be canceled the night I tried to see it…here I am, sitting, waiting for the overture of yet another performance of Oklahoma!, the show that is considered the “birth” of the modern American musical, and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first big Broadway hit; and guess what? I’m absolutely thrilled to be here.

The show is, of course, the same. A story of early mid-America; where the farmers and the ranchers are still arch rivals for control of the territory that is about to become the new state of Oklahoma.

Based on Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, and bursting with the joy and fun and enthusiasm of the love story between a determined cowboy and a spirited farm girl, Oklahoma! opened in 1943 and ran for 2,212 performances. It is still one of the most often produced of the “good old” traditional musicals.

This year’s troupe is proving to be consistently excellent. Timber Lake is one of those wonderful old-fashioned summer theaters that hires a “resident” company of actor-singer-dancers who actually “reside” right there at the venue. With a “campus” surrounding the theater itself, with cabins, dining facilities, rehearsal spaces and all the accoutrements necessary to produce a season of six major productions plus two children’s shows, many of the regulars are here for the whole summer, playing various roles, some big, some small, and working in all phases of the operation.

Par example, Oklahoma!’s beautiful leading ladies, Lauren Omelson as Laurey, and Kara Konken as Ado Annie, were both cell block tango girls in Chicago—and both were excellent, and now they are playing the major female leads, and are first-rate again. Ms. Omelson has a gorgeous singing voice and is a fine actress; and Ms. Konken is a terrific comic and also an accomplished singer. Further, they are both splendid dancers, à la Laurey’s dance in Out of My Dreams.

The other ensemble ladies were wonderful. Erin Schuppert’s Gertie Cummings had the requisite cackle laugh; and the singing/dancing talents of Kelsey Andres, Brittany Martin, Stephanie Elzea and Andrea Leach provided a consistent professionalism at all times. Ms. Leach is just as magnetic as a chorus dancer as she was as Velma in Chicago. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her.

The role of Aunt Eller, a sort of peacemaker of the group, is played by Samantha Barboza, who makes the character her very own. She seems to have matured since playing Mama Morton, and her Aunt Eller grows more comfortable and loveable as the evening progresses. She is nicely balanced by the superb John Chase, in the role of Andrew Carnes, Ado Annie’s shotgun-toting father, who serves as a kind of defender of the farmers.

The four major male roles are each individually different in character. Phillip Black made an excellent switch from the slick Billy Flynn in Chicago, to the delightful Ali Hakim, the peddler man in Oklahoma!; but Ali needs to be even more outlandish, more bizarre, more fun.

The two would-be paramours are Jay Ellis as Curly, determined to marry Laurey, but whose “bull in a China closet” rambunctiousness keeps getting him into trouble; and Tyler Smith, just back from Kansas City and ready to lasso Ado Annie. Neither is really physically right for his role, but both have strong characterizations, with fine voices and genuine enthusiasm. Mr. Smith’s strengths are his dancing and his comedy sense; Mr. Ellis handled the heavy scenes with the villain, Jud Fry, very well, but he needs more nuance, more sensibility, in his delivery of both lines and lyrics.

Although Braxton Molinara, from Kenosha, Wis., via North Carolina School of the Arts, at first seemed an odd casting in the roll of Jud Fry, he steadily proved his characterization to be creatively conceived and consistently developed. He made an often overdone character into an almost likeable villain.

Question: Who is Will Taylor? The program says “Guest Choreographer, from New York…Mr. Taylor will be creating the dances for this summer’s Oklahoma!” Frankly, I don’t think that covers the subject. I think Will Taylor is a genius! This man’s choreography is a major reason why I loved this production. It is fresh! It is ambitious! It is demanding of the performer! It is a delight to watch!

And in addition to the ladies mentioned earlier, the five male chorus dancers were fantastic as well: Wes Drummond, Trevor Leaderbrand, Jacob Lacopo, Daniel W. Switzer and Jeffrey Fenoglio, along with the agile Tyler Smith, comprised a dance team of extraordinary talent and prowess. Mr. Taylor’s choreography for these men was nothing short of brilliant, as in the “Kansas City” number, and “It’s An Outrage,” and the Act II opener, “The Farmer and the Cowman can be Friends,” for the whole company. For that matter, his work throughout the whole show was extraordinary, including, of course, the extended and complex “Ballet” (Laurey’s Dream).

Artistic Director James Beaudry is to be congratulated on the addition of Mr. Taylor to the Timber Lake Playhouse staff.

Obviously, I recommend this show enthusiastically! It’s a little over an hour’s drive. Oklahoma! runs through July 11. Call now: (815) 244-2035 or go online at www.timberlakeplayhouse.org.

From the July 7-13, 2010 issue

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