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Covedale’s “Oklahoma!” Is More than OK!

Review by Jack Crumley of Oklahoma!: Covedale Center for Performing Arts

Evan Koons and Jessica Kaiser in Covedale’s “Oklahoma!”

The Covedale Center for Performing Arts continues its tradition of playing the hits, closing out this season of shows with Oklahoma! In American musical history, 1943’s Oklahoma! is one of the first shows to ever incorporate song and dance numbers that are a part of the plot and even help move the plot along. It also marked the start of a long-running and successful collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Based on Lynn Riggs’ tepidly-received 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs, Oklahoma! was a huge Broadway hit and won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1944.

Oklahoma! tells the story of farmers and cowboys settling the land in 1906. The dashing Curly McClain is trying to woo Laurey Williams. But Laurey isn’t just some girl who jumps at the first guy to come along, and she makes Curly work for her affection. As a part of that work, she agrees to go to the upcoming box social with Jud, the intimidating farmhand who works on Aunt Eller’s farm where Laurey lives. Curly and Jud butt heads which leads to tragedy. There’s also a secondary plot where the fun-loving Ado Annie has to choose between her longtime beau, Will Parker, and traveling salesman Ali Hakim, who’s not looking for Ms. Right as much as Ms. Right Now.

For a musical so classic, lots of praise goes to this cast for not letting the characters feel tired or played out. Evan Koons plays Curly with a charming bravado. He’s a man’s man who’s looking to win his ladylove, and all with a very strong singing voice from start to finish. Curly is playful, sweet, engaging, honest, and forthright when he needs to be. In contrast, Laurey Williams is no shrinking violet. She’s a woman who isn’t willing to settle, and Jessica Kaiser plays that strength with a grace that is pleasantly surprising, along with a beautiful voice of her own. Kaiser and Koons have solid chemistry, and should also be praised for learning all the extensive choreography that Oklahoma! requires.

Mike Sherman’s take on the villainous Jud Fry has a lot of subtlety. He starts out as a gruff man of few words, and slowly builds to a creeping menace that never goes over-the-top. On the other side, Julia Hasl Miller’s Aunt Eller is simultaneously comfortable and authoritative. Aunt Eller is a character who has to have a rapport with essentially every character on stage, and Hasl Miller has an ease about her that really works for the character.

After seeing her turn as Inga in Covedale’s production of Young Frankenstein, it’s no surprise to see Heather Hale back on stage as the bubbly and flirty Ado Annie. Her facial expressions carry just as far as her operatic voice, and she’s fun to watch. Newcomer Logan Weinfurtner plays the cowboy Will Parker with a straightforward–at times doofy–earnestness that plays well with Hale’s goodtime Annie. Covedale regular Jamie Steele plays Annie’s father, the no-nonsense Andrew Carnes, who’s constantly struggling to keep his daughter on the straight and narrow. And then there’s Ali Hakim. I admit, I was slightly unsure about how this character would play. Watching the show with a modern eye, “ethnic” characters from classic shows can sometimes come off as “problematic” (if not downright insulting). But I took Brandon Bentley’s performance as a character playing a character. He’s a peddler who’s found sales success by pretending to be a ridiculous, exotic flirt from Persia. It’s a take that I thought really made the character (and all of his subsequent romantic entanglements) that much more interesting and funny.

In keeping with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original move to cast singers who can act, all of the songs in Oklahoma! come off great. From Curly belting out “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” to Will Parker’s “Kansas City” to Ali Hakim bemoaning his life in “It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage,” I don’t believe there was a sour note in the entire show. Koons’ Curly has a solid connection with Kaiser’s Laurey as they worry if “People Will Say We’re in Love,” and he’s able to nearly sell Jud on the benefits of his own demise in the darkly comic “Pore Jud is Daid.” Sherman then gets his own turn right after in the dramatic “Lonely Room.” Hale’s Annie effortlessly shows that she’s the girl who “Cain’t Say No,” and Steele as Carnes kicks off the second act with his pitch that “The Farmer and the Cowman” should be friends. Once again, kudos to Musical Director/Conductor Stephen Variames’ band, who all sound great (especially the trumpet), and never overpowered the singers.

I mentioned choreography earlier, and Maggie Perrino deserves credit for working double duty on this show as both director and choreographer. Oklahoma! is a musical that traditionally has dance moves like one would see at a square dance or a hoedown, but there’s also an elegant, extensive ballet that happens just before intermission. I imagine it was a lot for Perrino to lay out and for the cast to learn, but everything played great on stage Friday night.

Also on the technical side, Brett Bowling’s simple-looking barn set is surprisingly versatile, with small flats that roll out of the barn for small scenes like Jud’s smokehouse. Subtlety is a word I keep coming back to with this show, and that applies to Denny Reed’s lighting design. There were several little moments when the lights would dim to set a mood during a song, or the colors would change during a fight, and it all really added to the experience. As far as costumes go, Caren Brady’s design had several dresses that needed tear-away or snap-on skirts, and there were a lot of costume changes in this show. That’s especially true for the dream ballet. And again, subtlety: when Curly shows up in Laurey’s dream, he’s wearing a hat that’s much whiter (signifying his heroism) than he wears in the rest of the show.

Oklahoma! is one of my all-time favorite musicals, but I hadn’t seen it in awhile. I really enjoyed the Covedale production of it because of all the little things I noticed. What a great way to wrap up the 2017-2018 Marquee Season.

Oklahoma! plays Thursday through Sunday until April 29. Tickets are available by calling 513-241-6550 or going to the Covedale website, www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com/ccpa