Chicago Reviews

Oh What a Beautiful “Oklahoma”! Marriott’s 75th Anniversary Production Shines

★★★★

Reviewed by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Liz Lauren

Seated next to me during intermission of the opening night of Marriott Lincolnshire’s 75th anniversary production of Oklahoma, a man (presumably another critic) wondered aloud about how well this show fits into the current era. It is, after all, a show in which a man basically buys himself a wife, another basically sells her, and two other men literally fight for the right to marry a different woman. It’s the show with “I Cain’t Say No” and “All er Nothin’.” It’s the show in which men literally ogle over dirty pictures right in front of their women. It’s the show in which the heroine, who has stood strong for herself for much of the play, runs into the arms of her man after a terrible moment because she’s “just a girl.” How does all of this translate into our #MeToo moment?

Director Aaron Thielen, Marriott’s Artistic Director, obviously has thought through these questions as well, and since he couldn’t do much about these problems without changing the script, he decided to flesh out the backstory of his heroine to make her a stronger character. Instead of a Laurey who just happens to live with Aunt Eller, Thielen creates a side moment, a flashback that turns into a recurring dream sequence (appropriate enough for a musical in which there already is a fifteen-minute dream ballet) of Young Laurey (Maya Lou Hlava) showing up at her aunt’s house bedraggled after her parents have died, Throughout the play, Young Laurey appears at critical junctures to show us the thoughts of the adult version (Jennie Sophia). The result is to give Laurey way more motivation and to highlight her self-reliance (even when it sometimes is undermined by the play’s book).

Sophia is an excellent, womanly Laurey, seemingly much more mature than the other characters of her age. She possesses just the right combination of spunk and uncertainty to highlight her private longing for Curly (Brandon Springman), and enough stamina to endure some of the emotional swings that the play puts her through. Springman is a fine Curly as well. The role has always been a bit on the confusing side (here is a romantic hero who openly tries to get another character to kill himself) but Springman navigates these treacherous waters well. His “Poor Jud Is Dead” is about the clearest rendition of the song’s faux-sympathetic undertones that I’ve ever seen, and he wears his physique like a badge of honor. (“I’m handsome, ain’t I?” he asks at one point when Laurey is shunning him.) But there is nothing either he or Thielen can do to reconcile the Curly who would solicit suicide with the romantic who sells everything he owns to buy his girl’s basket of food. We just have to accept that he’s a complicated, flawed character.

Susan Moniz is a strong presence as Aunt Eller, the village elder of this play, dispensing such words to live by as “I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else, But I’ll be damned if I ain’t jist as good!” and at one point taking charge of a brawl with her shotgun. Michelle Lauto is a funny and enjoyable Ado Annie, romping through “I Cain’t Say No” and having a great time with her two would-be husbands, Will Parker (the talented Aaron Umsted) and Ali Hakim (Evan Tyrone Martin, overplaying a bit but still fun). And Jud Fry, the angry hired man on Aunt Eller’s farm, is played brilliantly by Shea Coffman, who manages to elicit much sympathy for a character often played as simply a brute.

Thielen’s direction keeps scenes moving right along, making clever use of limited scenery (designed by Kevin Depinet) to set new locales. The dream ballet is wonderfully staged: dancers Benita Bünger, Lucas Segovia, and Alejandro Fonseca lead the enthusiastic and talented ensemble through the various movements of this show-stopping set piece with élan and style, and Thielen uses them adroitly to tell this story-within-a-story. Choreographer Alex Sanchez should be commended here for some brilliant work, though in several other scenes his ranch-hands and cowboys’ prancing reminded me a bit too much of West Side Story.

In addition to Depinet, the entire design team deserves a shout-out. Brian Hemasath’s costumes are perfect. Jesse Klug’s lighting design evokes different times of day and highlights varied moments superbly, and the sound design by Robert E. Gilmartin is excellent, even stunning in the gunshot moments. Besides the designers, Patti Garwood’s nine-piece orchestra is flawless and could be mistaken for a much larger one.

The answer to the question the man next to me posed is: no matter how hard Thielen tried, Oklahoma is best viewed as a period piece, a little slice of turn-of-the-20th-Century Americana brought to us by two of America’s most gifted musical playwrights. It holds a special place in the pantheon because it was the first play to use dance and song to further the story instead of mere spectacle. And it is the story that is placed front and center in this Marriott production. If you love Oklahoma, this is one you must see. If you’re tired of Oklahoma, this is one you should see. It is a production that reminds us of what a stunning, ground-breaking show this was back in 1943, and is a perfect spring (if it ever comes) and summer entertainment today.

Oklahoma is now playing at Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre through June 10. Times vary, so you’d best check the website. Tickets can be purchased from Marriott Lincolnshire.

 

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