By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle
(Photo of Gizel Jimenez and Matthew Curiano as Ado Annie and Ali Hakim by Diane Sobolewski)
For the first time on the Goodspeed Musical’s stage in East Haddam, Connecticut, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, OKLAHOMA, will wow audiences through September 27. Brilliantly Directed by Jenn Thompson, this beautifully stirring production is fresh, fast and contemporary, infused with more energy and excitement than any other version of this show that we’ve ever seen.
Rhett Guter plays cowboy Curly with a youthful exuberance that consistently charms the audience. Winner of the Connecticut Critics Circle award for last summer’s performance as Conrad Birdie in Goodspeed’s Bye Bye Birdie, Mr. Guter opens the show from the theater’s aisle, singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” with a sparkling enthusiasm that sets the pace for the rest of the show.
Curly’s love interest is farm girl Laurey, beautifully sung and acted by Samantha Bruce. Ms. Bruce gives Laurey a mildly stubborn streak that is natural without being indignant. She is as afraid to admit her romantic feelings for Curly as he is afraid to admit his feelings for her. Their raging hormones and hidden passion gets recognized, wisely, by Aunt Eller, played with big-hearted love and biting wit by international star Terry Burrell (Dreamgirls -Broadway, Showboat – London, Swinging on a Star – Goodspeed and Broadway).
Boyishly dim cowboy Will Parker is played with more buoyancy than a rubber ball by delightful Jake Swain whose voice is a perfectly honed instrument for the effervescent “Kansas City” song-and-dance scene. The irrepressible Ado Annie Carnes is played with intuitive comic precision by more-than-adorable Gizel Jimenez. Her big number, “I Cain’t Say No!” is done with innocently naughty innuendo and a big Broadway voice that could make the balcony seats vibrate. When these two scene-stealers join up for “All Er Nuthin’” in Act 2, the perfect combination of talent and chemistry lights up the stage. These are two actors to watch for in future successes.
Also in the running for Ado Annie’s affections of a carnal nature is Persian Peddler Ali Hakim. Broadly played by Matthew Curiano, the peddler is deliciously smarmy without ever having to curl his moustache. Forever getting himself in and out of trouble with women, Ali Hakim goes from town to town like a one-man circus. Mr. Curiano’s comic timing brings the peddler’s circus to life.
Menacing ‘villain’ Jud Fry is powerfully acted and sung by Matt Faucher. His solo number, “Lonely Room” although not a great song, is delivered with such passionate sadness that the emotional impact on the audience is palpable. Mr. Faucher’s voice is deep and deliciously mellifluous to hear. Curly and Jud sing a duet – “Pore Jud is Daid,” to which director Thompson has given a winningly comic vibe. Its sympathetic words and emotions have been turned upside down to make it a funny and sarcastic interpretation of Hammerstein’s lyrics. Curly smirks deliciously as he irreverently mocks the unwitting Jud.
The principal cast is backed by an ensemble of young professionals who are exceptional dancers, singers and actors. These energetic farmers and cowboys, with lovely wives, girlfriends and townspeople kick up a storm, glide through an exquisite and thrilling “Out of My Dreams” ballet sequence, and fight, whoop and holler in big dances brilliantly choreographed by Katie Spelman.
Tensions arise between the farmers and the cowboys and come to a boiling point in the rousing “The Farmer and The Cowman.” Voices of reason, Aunt Eller and Ado Annie’s father Andrew Carnes, try to impart calm and harmony between the two groups. Playing Papa Carnes is C. Mingo Long, whose stage presence dazzles. His ornery believability radiates from the moment he walks on stage toting a shotgun (as those prairie fathers of virgin daughters often did) to his closing scenes as territorial Judge of a fledgling new state.
Wilson Chin’s Scenic Design is a testament to his talent. The open prairie, the loneliness the wide-open spaces and big sky, and the basic structure of the homes of the pioneers who settled the Midwest and West are all simply yet effectively done. The cornfields and windmills are all there, and Philip S. Rosenberg’s pastel lighting successfully evoke the perfect sky mood for each scene.
Tracy Christensen’s period costumes in harmony with wig and hair design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer give each character the authenticity of people determined to survive in a new environment. Director Thompson asked each acting cowboy and farmer to refrain from shaving or cutting their hair during the run to further emphasize reality. While the men are sufficiently grubby, the women brighten up the stage in frilly frocks worthy of a turn-of-the-last-century operetta.
Oklahoma! is a classic musically – the BIG title song, near the close of the show, is as inspiring as it is familiar, and this cast brilliantly interprets the mood and exciting emotion of creating something new and alive- in this case, a new state, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain. The legendary score—including “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” and “People Will Say We’re in Love” is played beautifully by the Goodspeed Orchestra, with Conductor Michael O’Flaherty, assisted by F. Wade Russo, playing Dan DeLange’s orchestrations exquisitely. And in order to hear the singers, actors and lovely music, Resident Sound Designer and Audio Supervisor Jay Hilton, celebrating his zillionth year at Goodspeed, has once again worked his flawless technical magic.
Choreographer Katie Spelman and Director Jenn Thomson worked on Oklahoma! with the contributions of David Chase for his additional dance arrangements, and Unkledaves’s Fight-House for the brawling action between those darn stubborn farmers and gun-toting cowmen.
With each big number, you’ll be tempted to stomp your feet and kick up your heels during this brilliant production of one of America’s best-loved musicals. Each member of the cast and crew gets a big Bravo and YeeHaw from www.criticsontheaisle.org
Oklahoma! runs until September 27, 2017. Curtain times are Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.).
Tickets are available through the Box Office by calling 860-873-8668, open seven days a week, or online at goodspeed.org.