WSU’s Bonstelle Theatre is wrapping its season with a lavish, loving production of Rogers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” and you really don’t want to miss it. The cast, the orchestra, the costumes and scenic design are all first rate. We will be smiling and humming those lush tunes all weekend.
When “Oklahoma!” made its Broadway debut in 1944, everyone knew they were witnessing something special, new and different; it’s first run lasted an unheard of 2,212 performances. Since then, it has enjoyed multiple award-winning revivals and foreign tours, plus the 1955 Academy Award-winning film adaptation. It’s credited with ushering in the golden age of Broadway – in which the songs seamlessly help tell the story, set the mood, and reveal the characters’ inmost thoughts. In fact, since they didn’t have Tony Awards back then, they created a special Pulitzer to honor this amazing American musical.
Seeing the fabulous Bonstelle production on opening night, directed by WSU’s Blair Anderson, it’s easy to see why “Oklahoma!” continues to be a fan favorite. If you keep a checklist of “must haves” for musicals, “Oklahoma!” has them all covered.
The story is a slice of Americana, examining a time when the Oklahoma territories – settled by farmers and cattle ranchers who disputed each other’s rights – were about to come together in an official declaration of statehood. There is a charming mix of romance, comedy and brilliantly choreographed fighting. Farm girl Laurey (Cameron McGillis) is in love with the cowboy Curly (Graham Todd) but both are too proud to admit it. The dark and moody farm hand Jud Fry (Patrick Roache) has his own plans for Laurey. And Ado Annie (Alexis Barrera) can’t say ‘no’ to either Will Parker (Tim Hiemstra) or the peddler Ali Hakim (Ibrahim Karim). Aunt Eller (Keira Elyse), with her gritty determination and down-to-earth sense of humor, does her best to keep rough-housing down and spirits high.
The music features a steady string of hit songs by the dynamic duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein which are beautifully performed by a full orchestra under the baton of Music Director Dr. Jerry Custer. This impressive Bonstelle cast embraces each tune as if it’s the musical’s primary anthem—and indeed, each song carries the impact of a favorite showtune.
For area theatre fans who know Graham Todd from his work with Slipstream Theatre Initiative, you’ll be delighted to learn that this young man can really sing and dance. Todd’s duos with Ms. McGillis – whose amazingly sweet tones extend into her high range – are big and effortless. And in the “Poor Jud is Dead” number, Todd and Patrick Roache delight the audience with their haunting but wickedly funny performance.
And then there’s all the dancing – pulling in the full resources of the Maggie Allesee Department of Theatre and Dance. WSU’s celebrated choreographer Meg Paul amplifies the foot-stomping, gymnastic dance numbers and contrasts them with the classical “Dream Ballet” that ends Act One. As Laurey sniffs an elixir from the peddler, hoping to think through her feelings for Curly, she falls asleep. Professional dancers double in the roles of Laurey (Ashley Kalchik) and Curly (Nick Gottron), and the ensemble fills in to represent the figures in Laurey’s dream. This groundbreaking infusion of classical dance into the American Musical form is still amazingly powerful and moving, and WSU’s Allesee Dance Company makes the most of this gem-like showpiece.
The abstract scenic design by Michael Sabourin perfectly establishes each scene while facilitating the multiple changes that can make this play a challenge to stage. Costumes by Mary Copenhagen are just right – scaled to the means of simple people, and embellished in the dream sequence.
The “Oklahoma!” cast includes: Alexis Barrera (Ado Annie Carnes), Keira Elyse (Aunt Eller), Jordan Allen Fritz (Andrew Carnes), Nick Gottron (Dream Curly), Tim Hiemstra (Will Parker), Ashley Kalchik (Dream Laurey), Graham Todd (Curly), Ibrahim Karim (Ali Hakim), Cameron McGillis (Laurey), Patrick Roache (Jud Fry), Austin Sullivan (Dream Jud), Kevin Talanges (Ike Skidmore), Mike Vultaggio (Cord Elam). The ensemble features: Katelyn Bettendorf, Britney Birr, Josue Camerena, Sean Ceglarek (Fight Captain), Lydia Di Iorio, Maria DiMarzio, Nicole Gerkey, Nick Gottron, Madelynn Guerra, Bonnie Holmes, Maria Idunate, Thomas McCarter, Dason Mitchell, Madeline Petz, Steven Pfannes, Niyah Riggins, Angelique Salisbury, Stephanie Sickles, Bradley Smith, Rachael Smith, Austin Sullivan, Lauren Valice.
The Production Team features: Blair V. Anderson (Director), Dr. Jerry Custer (Music Director), Meg Paul (Choreographer), Sarah Drum (Stage Manager), Michael Sabourin (Scenic Designer), Mary Copenhagen (Costume Designer), John Wolf (Lighting Designer), Valerie Frawley (Sound Designer), Samantha Welsing (Property Master), Wayne David Parker (Fight Choreographer) and Jason Goldman (Publicist).
“Oklahoma!” runs through April 24 at the Bonstelle Theatre, with shows on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and on Sundays at 2 p.m. There will also be a special performance for student audiences on Thursday, April 21, at 10 a.m. The Bonstelle is located in Midtown at 3424 Woodward Ave., just south of Mack Avenue. (Note, if you come in from I-75 and take the Mack exit, you can slip in behind the Red Cross building without having to navigate the construction on Woodward Avenue.) To reserve tickets, call the box office at (313) 577-2960 or visit the website.