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Marriott Theatre's 75th anniversary 'Oklahoma!' a rousing revival


The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire last staged "Oklahoma!" 25 years ago to commemorate the musical's 50th birthday. Now Rodgers and Hammerstein's groundbreaking hit is back for its 75th anniversary.

Yet this production is no duty-bound exercise in honoring a dusty classic. Rather, director Aaron Thielen and choreographer Alex Sanchez's rousing revival provides a foot-stomping reminder that "Oklahoma!" remains perennially as fresh as a daisy. And their willingness to tinker (with some judicious cutting in Act I) helps keep it that way.

From the start, Thielen and Sanchez put their own stamp on the material by illustrating the usually unstaged overture with pantomimed and danced back story. Maya Lou Hlava first appears as the orphaned heroine Laurey, arriving as a sad child into the care of her Aunt Eller (Susan Moniz). The farm girl soon grows up (Jennie Sophia is the mature Laurey), observing all of the excitement and randy couplings of homesteaders flooding into the Oklahoma Territory.

By the time the first lyrics of the immortal song "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'" are sung offstage by the handsome cowboy Curly (Brandon Springman), the musical's world and tone are well established. Sophia's annoyed eye rolling is an amusing sign that Laurey and Curly have fought and flirted plenty before.

"Oklahoma!" is a simple story of farm girls newly discovering the joys and risks of being pursued by amorous suitors. But Thielen and Sanchez ensure that life-or-death stakes lurk around the corner.

Sophia embodies the headstrong Laurey with a lovely soprano voice, all the while stubbornly resisting expectations that she's the predestined bride of the overconfident Curly. Yet her flirtation games turn dangerous, especially when she deploys the damaged Jud Fry (a gruff Shea Coffman) to make Curly jealous.

Coffman and Springman may not have the deep, operatic vocal heft that some longtime "Oklahoma!" fans expect from the show's leading men. But they're both solid actors.

The musical's secondary love triangle offers sparks and a bit of comic relief. As Ado Annie, Michelle Lauto plays an overeager flirt who "Cain't Say No," while Evan Tyrone Martin handles the comic timing of the "Persian" peddler Ali Hakim with skill. As the none-too-bright suitor Will Parker, Aaron Umstead proves to be a dynamic dancer and rope twirler.

Sanchez presents even more impressive dancing, ranging from the rip-roaring Act II opener "The Farmer and the Cowman" to the psychological drama of the "Out of my Dreams" ballet. The dream dance soloists of Benita Bünger as Laurey, Lucas Segovia as Curly and Alejandro Fonseca as Jud delight with their soaring athleticism and grace, even when they're weaving amid the creepiness of designer Jesse Klug's moody lighting, or the overly blonde dancers in pink (a compelling choice by costume designer Brian Hemesath to differentiate between the dream and real worlds).

Using the Marriott's center-stage intimacy to their advantage, Thielen and Sanchez get to the emotional and comic heart of "Oklahoma!" The musical may be three-quarters-of-a-century old, but Marriott's marvelous staging shows that "Oklahoma!" will continue to endure.