Highly Recommended - Oh, What a Beautiful Production
To avid theatergoers, there’s nothing in the world quite so thrilling as hearing a breathtaking, carefully-crafted musical score being played to perfection by a full-sounding orchestra. Hearing those first strains of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s lush overture, musically directed by Ryan T. Nelson, and played by conductor Patti Garwood and her talented, ten-member orchestra, reminds audiences of what they’ve missed in lesser productions of this show. It’s as if the audience gets to journey back to 1943, when this groundbreaking classic of the musical stage first opened on Broadway, and oh, what a beautiful moment, that must’ve been.
Aaron Thielen, the production’s talented director, is a master artist, noted for guiding such stunning Marriott productions as “Spring Awakening” and “She Loves Me.” Here he breathes new life into an classic that’s credited with reinventing the modern musical. In Thielen’s skilled hands, this production both looks and sounds as if it were brand new while still carefully recreating the magic that audiences experienced 75 years ago when the American theatrical musical was born.
When Richard Rodgers first teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein III to musicalize “Green Grow the Lilacs,” Lynn Riggs’ dramatic homage to her home state, the result was a much better crafted play featuring a score of gorgeous, memorable songs that were not only entertaining but actually furthered the plot. Until this time, musicals were mostly offshoots of burlesque and vaudeville, light entertainments, filled with big song-and-dance production numbers and cheap jokes. “Oklahoma” centered around two pairs of young lovers whose stories are told against the background of Oklahoma’s impending statehood. Plenty of comedy still prevailed, but there was also drama that evoked real emotional response. The songs became musical extensions of the play’s dialogue (“People Will Say We’re in Love,” “All or Nothin’”) or provided melodic monologues (“Out of My Dreams,” “Lonely Room”) for one character. Even the show’s choreography, especially Agnes De Mille’s famous “Dream Ballet,” contributed to the story, instead of merely showcasing a performer’s talents.
Marriott’s faithful season ticket holders would expect nothing less than actors who are able to sing and dance this score the way it was written. To achieve such musical, dramatic and choreographic perfection Aaron Thielen cast only the very best. Jennie Sophia, who starred as Fiona in the Goodman’s production of “Brigadoon” and Fantine in “Les Miserables” at Drury Lane, absolutely sparkles as Laurie. Her musical precision is matched only by her perfect diction and star quality. She’s superbly matched by handsome Brandon Springman as Curly, seen recently in Marriott’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Man of La Mancha.” His glorious voice opens the show with his sweet rendition of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'.” Sophia and Springman team up perfectly with “People Will Say We’re in Love,” while Springman’s splendid voice soars in such numbers as “Pore Jud is Dead” and, backed by the entire ensemble, the rousing title song.
Michelle Lauto returns from Marriott’s last production, as Evelyn Nesbit, the girl on the swing in “Ragtime,” to bring high humor and smooth vocals to her portrayal of Ado Annie. Songs like “I Cain’t Say No” and “All er Nothin’,” sung with comic romantic partner Aaron Umstead as Will Parker are the icing on this confection. Ms. Lauto’s scenes with Evan Tyrone Martin, as the comically conniving Persian peddler Ali Hakim, help make Ms. Lauto one of the standouts of this show. Another standout is the always delightful Susan Moniz, as an earthy, dryly humorous Aunt Eller. Ms. Moniz recently returned from a National Tour of “Fun Home,” and Chicago is happy to have her back home where she belongs. And stepping out of the ensemble from Marriott’s “Newsies,” “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Ragtime,” terrific actor/singer Shea Coffman gives a haunted, menacing star turn as Jud Fry.
Agnes De Mille’s cutting edge choreography from the 1943 production is reinvented here by clever, class-act choreographer, Alex Sanchez. The show’s poetic “Dream Ballet” that closes Act I is gorgeous and every bit as moving as when it was first experienced in the original New York production. But, the choreographer has also creatively opened this production with a shorter ballet that introduces audiences to a young, orphaned Laurie (played by Maya Lou Hlava) as she first shows up on her beloved Aunt Eller’s doorstep. Mr. Sanchez’s choreography for “Kansas City,” as performed by Umstead and the entire ensemble, along with his Act II opener, “The Farmer and the Cowhand,” are both heart-pumping showstoppers.
Kevin Depinet’s beautifully timbered and earth-toned scenic design, with its lavish, 360 degree projection-washed backdrops by Anthony Churchill, are matched by Brian Hemesath’s authentic-looking wardrobe of gingham and dirndl costumes. But the real reason not to miss to this wonderful production is the opportunity to experience Aaron Thielen’s multitalented cast performing this glorious play by Rodgers & Hammerstein and to hear a score that would become the basis for how book musicals would be created forever after.