In accessible downtown Aurora, next to a picturesque riverfront and well-maintained downtown, the historic 1,888 seat venue is beautiful and inviting. Patrons gain a sense of history upon entering the front of house, emblazoned in warm colored art-deco inspired murals on walls and ceiling.
Paramount’s current show, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! opened September 20 to an eager and appreciative full house. The story is fairly well-known by now, having been originally produced in 1943. Turn of the century Oklahoma is only a territory and in a little town, love happens between a cowboy and farm girl. Read more about this story and production background here.
From the overture through the curtain-call, the virtually perfect orchestral numbers soar from the pit. Music Director and Conductor Tommy Vendafreddo showcases the classic score with fresh verve and joy. This energy extends through the entire vocal performance as well, from soloists to chorus numbers, and can surely be enjoyed alone for the music.
But along with a sweet venue and lovely music, there’s so much more to enjoy with this production. The drawn curtain reveals a unique set design approach, artistically bringing this 1943 musical into the 21st century, while preserving the charm of a rural story line. The entire stage apron is outlined with a giant, crooked, distressed, carved wooden railing frame. Shadows and silhouettes of pale lace adorn a back fence-board wall which is cleverly cut along the bottom edge to approximate the iconic outline of an Oklahoma hilly horizon.
Scenic designer Scott Davis effectively presents elements of a dusty turn-of-the-century country setting via original modern materials and techniques. The old house is represented by a simple bare-bones frame, while still offering a second story level, porch and front door to work with. Rather than create walls and fake greenery to provide exit and entrance spaces, the floor of the set is extended into solid curved shapes. These shapes provide hills, giving actors something to climb, sing on and walk behind. They additionally create the illusion of distance onstage, allowing groups to come and go without always having to exit on the left or right.
While this set design is full of brilliant concepts, it’s strengths are often dependent on the effects spun by Lighting Designer Greg Hoffman. Hoffman’s lighting effects on the back wall simulate stunning sky vistas, from high noon, to twilight and a starry night. An interesting fly is dropped down in front of the primary stage area, simulating the interior wall for the smokehouse of dark barn slats. Shining bright light from behind the wall through the slats to the front effectively create an ominous “indoor” space, which sets the scene perfectly for “Poor Jud is Daid.”
Beautiful sets and effects deserve great performances. The action on stage does not disappoint. Colte Julian, as Curly, opens the first act with his flat-out powerful joyful version of “Oh What A Beautiful Morning.” Julian sets a high bar early on for vocals and displays a likable character with a sense of humor.
A good vocal match for Julian, Allison Sill playing Laurey, boasts some powerful pipes, proving this isn’t her first rodeo. Sill also manages to showcase some fine dance abilities. Peter Saide presents a somewhat darker version of his character, Jud Fry. Saide makes full use of his taller frame so Jud looms over Laurey and even Curly with an aggressive posture that on occasion gives way to a more vulnerable nature. This presentation of Jud goes a little deeper than the typical dopey bad guy persona, at times inspiring the surprising inclination to feel sympathy for the gent who doesn’t get the girl.
The secondary couple and love story surrounds Will Parker, played by Carl Draper, and Ado Annie Carnes, played by Lillie Cummings. Draper provides fine singing with charm and humor, complimented well by Cummings who deftly navigates Annie’s simultaneous fondness for kissing and “purty talk” and general naivete. The couple adds much humor and welcome smiles to the evening.
Caron Buinis as Aunt Eller and Kareen Bandealy as Ali Hakim add much to the chemistry of the production. Buinis is quite believable as the matriarch, equally comfortable guiding the ladies and keeping the men-folk in check, brandishing funny one-liners with skill. Bandealy’s peddler character becomes progressively more endearing as the production moves along. By the end, he feels more like a lead character than a support.
Additional credits go to Choreographer Scott Davis. This show is known for its dance numbers, and Davis delivers. There’s no skimping on difficult moves or complexity with group routines, yielding wonderful synchronization and sincere fun.C
Combined with the darker, more fantastical treatment of the dream sequences, Director Jim Corti may be plumbing deeper meaning into what is sometimes presented as a more superficial plot, particularly in the interactions between Jud and other characters. Fresh off of his two award-nominated Paramount shows, Tommy and Les Miserables, Corti carries his unique sensibilities into Oklahoma!, proving there’s still plenty of interesting life in this older classic.
Paramount’s family-friendly production of Oklahoma! Provides an enjoyable evening with Broadway-level performances at reasonable ticket prices. If you love the vintage classics, this is a can’t miss event.
“Oklahoma!” runs until October 18, at Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora. Show times are Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.; Thursday at 7 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $41 to $56. Tickets and information are available on line here, or by phone at (630) 896-6666.