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  • Nate Adams

'Oklahoma' review: Encore delivers a stylish, old fashioned musical theater hoedown

Courtesy of Michele Anliker Photography

 

Watching The Encore’s opening night performance of the 1943 musical theater staple “Oklahoma,” reminded me that you don’t always need to retool the subtext, switch-up the scenery, or even tweak the orchestration to spark a conversation. Sometimes, you can just let the writing and style speak for itself. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved The Encore’s triumphant reimagining of “Into the Woods,” and how it provided a unique, one-of-a-kind take on a beloved piece, but as some audiences may agree, traditional productions are just fine too. 


And for someone who knew very minimal (and had never seen it performed live) about Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” seeing it done authentically and with this top notch cast and crew certainly fosters its own immersive viewing experience. It also allows you to dissect the characters and the situations with your own 2024 lens without sacrificing the integrity of the show. In other words, its themes of love, passion, crime, and punishment are timeless. 

 

Director Daniel Cooney’s full throttle production is the perfect way to not only continue the theater’s blistering Broadway season, but it’s the type of sizzling, electric, and all hands-on-deck show that feels sort of like the official start to Summer. One where you can tap dance in the cornfields, find your soulmate, and dream about a better tomorrow.

 

At least that’s how it works for the jubilant lead character of the show, Curly (Jason Mulay Koch – sporting an infectious, youthful energy) who we meet at the top of the show vying for the attention of Laurey (Aurora Penepacker – wondrous), someone he’d very much like to be smitten with. The sun shines bright on their potential courtship in Claremore, a small town that’s on the verge of statehood during a moment in history filled with as much excitement as there is uncertainty. Everyone is buzzing about the upcoming “box social,” a fundraiser for the school where all the local women prepare a basket lunch the men will then bid on. Curly wants to take Laurey, but she’s playing hard to get, although his persuasion through the tune “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” almost makes a convincing case.  

 

Meanwhile, other colorful characters populate the town ala the affectionate cowboy Will Parker (a joyous, near scene stealing Anderson Zoll) who has just returned from Kansas City with news about pretty ladies and modern amenities. More importantly, he’s come home with enough cash to finally marry the love of his life: Ado Annie (Maddie Dick in a lovely, endearing performance) although she’s been flirting around with a local peddler Ali Hakim (Cody Dent – great), which makes for tasty conflict when her father (a towering, shotgun wielding Keith Kalinowski) insists she marries him instead of Parker.


But perhaps the most interesting character of the show, and the one of whom I left feeling the most sympathy for, is local farmhand Jud (played by David Moan in one of the actors more layered, nuanced portrayals) who has feelings for Laurey and is often taken advantage of throughout the show and seen as a mentally unstable, yet misunderstood individual with no regard for social hierarchy. It’s a complicated and dense personification that requires a certain finesse to get audiences invested in his journey and Moan, who has always been a terrific character actor, turns in a transformative performance that sticks with you long after the final bows. In his big, dramatic, scene near the end of the show, he’s spellbinding and heartbreaking all at the same time. Wilde Awards look out. 

 

The ensemble is also a marvel to watch under the musical direction of R. Mackenzie Lewis, who lives onstage with a vast and mighty orchestra. Accomplished choreographer Amy West doesn’t skimp on the physical mechanics of why “Oklahoma” has entertained for generations either, which includes the crafting of the seminal “Dream Ballet” stunner that ends Act One. It’s a menagerie of movements, rhythms, and timing that must work in succinct unison or else the audience can become tireless (in all, it’s a nearly 15-minute sequence) and the final result is a captivating rush. Costume designer Marilee Dechart’s stylish and westerly influences flaunter under Joseph R. Walls and Ethan Hoffman’s colorful lighting, while a major shout-out is due for sound designer Chris Goosman (there wasn’t a single audio gaffe the entire evening, a rarity for any regional theater) and scenic designer Shane Cinal who creates an environment that allows Cooney to play the angles and the actors to use as their rootin’ tootin’ playground.

 

A playground that cultivates effortless chemistry among the company. Weather it’s Julia Glander’s heavenly though grounded Aunt Eller keeping everyone at ease, the puppy dog, wide-eyed “aww shucks” attitude of Zoll chasing after Dick’s bubbly Ado Annie, Koch and Penepacker melting our hearts with “People Will Say We’re in Love,” or the countless ensemble members who make up everyone from cowboys to sheriffs to homemakers, The Encore’s lively rendition of the prominent musical theater classic will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. So, pull up your bootstraps, kick the dust-up, and get those tickets while you still can. 

 

The Encore’s production of OKLAHOMA continues through June 30th. Tickets can be purchased Here

 


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