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'Oklahoma!' At the Marriott Theatre

By a happy scheduling coincidence, the two largest music theaters in Chicagoland are offering the first two Rodgers and Hammerstein classics at the same time.

The Drury Lane and Marriott theaters are presenting masterful revivals of Oklahoma! (1943) and South Pacific (1949) respectively. Attending both gives audiences a couple of great nights of musical theater and just as important the opportunity to inspect the roots of modern musical comedy in the United States and by extension the rest of the world.

Of the two shows South Pacific is probably the richer experience because of the greater complexity of its book. But both shows have Hall of Fame scores and the dancing in Oklahoma! changed musical theater forever.

Oklahoma! is a nostalgic romance set in the rustic Oklahoma territory just before statehood in 1907. It’s a love story between a cowboy and a young farm woman (the farmers and the ranchers did not co-exist peacefully in those days). For much of the show, the relationship between Curley and Laurey consists mostly of insults traded back and forth in the time-honored fashion of two characters who refuse to admit they love each other.

There is a subsidiary love story pairing a local yokel named Will Parker and Ado Annie, a young lady who sings “I’m just a girl who cain’t say no,” which tells us all we need to know about this breezy lass. The men all talk in Gomer Pyle accents and the girls giggle a lot.

What redeems the storyline from an excess of “aw shucks” innocence are three second line characters—Aunt Eller, Ali Hakim, and Jud Fry. Aunt Eller is a lady who provides wisdom and warmth, beautifully played with understated realism by Susan Moniz. Ali Hakim is a traveling frontier peddler, selling knickknacks and seducing the ladies as he goes. He’s a winning comic figure in the performance of Evan Tyrone Martin, who gets honest laughs when a lesser actor would settle for mining the role for easy chuckles.

Most important to giving the plot its dramatic weight is Shea Coffman as Jud Fry, Aunt Eller’s brooding psychopathic handyman who lusts for the fearful Laurey as a mate to soothe his lonely life. Coffman exudes menace every moment he’s on stage. He’s a villain but a villain with perhaps a legitimate gripe with the world. It’s a finely shaded portrayal of a foul human being.

But the show is really about Laurey and Curley. We first meet Laurey (Jennie Sophia) as a little girl come to Aunt Eller’s farmhouse carrying a note and her rag doll. It’s a scene in mime that establishes Laurey as an orphan who will be saved by Aunt Eller’s compassion. Curley (Brandon Springman) is a brash young man and at first glimpse of the pair we know that wedding bells are inevitable, but only after the ritual bickering that spices up such romances.

Sophia has a strong and expressive voice paired against Springman’s tenor. One senses that Laurey will be the quiet master of their marriage and Curley is a lucky guy to take her instead of one of the simpering ninnies in the neighborhood. The two make fine work of the great romantic duet “People Will Say We’re in Love.” That’s one of the show’s half dozen mega hits, along with “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” ”The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “I Cain’t Say No,” “Out of My Dreams,” and, of course, the rousing title song.

In the Broadway original to end the first act the choreographer Agnes de Mille created a dream ballet to reprise the Laurey-Curley-Jud tale, and the musical theater has never been the same. De Mille introduced modern dance to the modern musical, earning credit as the first classical choreographer to further the plot and express intense emotion through dancing.

The Marriott has assembled a large cast of trained dancers to execute Alex Sanchez’s choreography, which ranges triumphantly from the exuberance of “Kansas City” to the narrative power of the dream ballet through the triangle of Laurey, Curley, and Jud Fry. Soloists Benita Bünger, Lucas Segovia, and Alejandro Fonseca lead the chorus in the stirring number, performing a blend of De Mille originality and Sanchez interpretation.

Director Aaron Thielen enriches the production with creative touches, like starting the show with dancing rather than Curley traditionally entering an empty stage to declare “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.”

The other significant performers are Michelle Lauto as an unapologetic horny Ado Annie and Aaron Umsted as her apple knocker boy friend. Terry Hamilton, who never disappoints, is funny as Ado Annie’s shotgun tooting protective father. Hamilton even displays a credible singing voice.

Kevin Depinet has designed a minimal set that creatively uses wood to evoke a frontier atmosphere. The sense of place is cemented by Brian Hemesath’s authentic looking costumes, climaxed by stunning nightmarish female outfits during the dream ballet. Robert E. Gilmartin designed the sound and Jesse Klug the lighting. Anthony Churchill supervised the projection designs that enclose the stage in the Oklahoma sky and Oklahoma landscape.

Granted, the Oklahoma! book is a little light compared to future Rodgers and Hammerstein hits like Carousel, The King and I, and even The Sound of Music. But the music is sumptuously melodic, humorous, and in the case of Jud Fry’s grim “Lonely Room,” haunting. It’s the acting and singing of Shea Coffman I most relish most among the abundance of fine performances at the Marriott.

The show gets a rating of ★★★½