By Barry Reszel
Blame perhaps the pelting snow on a late April’s evening, what some clever social media posters refer to as “January 96th,” if thoughts following the opening of Marriott Theatre’s new, tender production of Richard Rodgers‘ and Oscar Hammerstein III‘s iconic Oklahoma! meander to Jerry Herman‘s Mame.
Specifically, to Mame‘s best known song, “We Need a Little Christmas.”
Because what this Oklahoma! does best is to encourage its patrons’ contemplation of times gone by, realizing both how far society has come since 1906, when the story unfolds, and yet how far “we the people” have yet to travel. Presumably, the venerable Broadway musical sought to do the same for its first audiences in 1943, but it’s fair to say a defter touch is needed 75 years later in what’s likely to be a retelling to a majority of those in attendance.
And Director Aaron Thielen‘s touch is particularly adroit.
If this Oklahoma! was a painting, it would be a landscape watercolor akin to Designer Anthony Churchill‘s placid projections on burlap continually surrounding the audience throughout this exquisite production. If a sound recording alone, one with emphasis on the acoustic, as Music Director’s Ryan T. Nelson‘s orchestrations employ.
Proven Chicagoland leads Brandon Springman as Curley and Jennie Sophia as Laurey are gorgeous, dulcet-voiced and perfectly cast. They contribute to the greatest highlights of an astounding songbook, including “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey With the Fringe on the Top,” “Many a New Day” and “People Will Say We’re in Love,” among others. But one will remember this pair’s innate ability to dim their own limelights just a tad, permitting a new understanding of characters previously thought to be fully known—to wit, Aunt Eller, Ado Annie and Jud Fry.
As much more than a crusty frontier town’s matriarch, it wouldn’t have been at all surprising to see Susan Moniz pull out a pink pussyhat for the finale. Her Aunt Eller is a 2018 feminist stuck in Costume Designer’s Brian Hemesath‘s period perfect 1906 bloomers and stockings. In many ways, she is Thielen’s narrator, and the production is all the better for it.
Michelle Lauto‘s Ado Annie, the spirited lass who “Cain’t Say No,” is no mere airhead in this Oklahoma! Lauto exudes just enough depth to intrigue audiences, making them believe she years for something more out of life. She also sings the daylights out of her signature song and her duet with ultimate love Will (wonderfully portrayed and sung by Aaron Umsted), “All or Nothin’.”
And finally, Shea Coffman‘s Jud Fry is complex and sympathetic while still feared and partially disdained. This Jud is two parts Hagrid (of Harry Potter fame) and one part Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooter Nikolas Cruz. The suggestion of his mental illness is a paradox here, with a thinking patron’s mind simultaneously asking, “Why did you have to go there?” and answering, “Because only by going there do we progress.” Coffman’s characterization will be this reviewer’s longest lasting rumination.
Surrounding these thoughtful takeaways is the perfect execution of Alex Sanchez‘s sometimes spirited, other times ethereal choreography. Highlights include the dream ballet (kudos to Young Laurey, Maya Lou Hlava); the opening number of Act Two, “The Farmer and the Cowman;” and of course, the title song and finale. Those looking for a full plot summary and production history of the show will find it here.
All said, despite this review’s initial deference to Mame, there is no call today to “Haul out the holly.” The calendar says it’s spring, and the analysis here says musical theatre patrons should urgently plan their treks to Lincolnshire because, indeed, everyone needs a little of this Oklahoma! right now.
Marriott Theatre presents “Oklahoma!” through June 10 at 10 Marriott Dr, Lincolnshire. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Liz Lauren.