Reviewed by Suzanne Angeo (member, American Theatre Critics Association)
and Greg Angeo (Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle)
Photos courtesy of Stagecrafters
A Lot to Love in “Oklahoma!”
If ever there was a crowd-pleaser, it’s “Oklahoma!”, the beloved musical classic that set the Broadway world ablaze when it premiered in March 1943. It ran for a record-breaking five years to critical and popular acclaim, and even garnered a special Pulitzer Prize for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein in 1944. The Tony Awards didn’t exist in those days – the first were in 1947 – but if they did, “Oklahoma!” surely would have taken home many prizes, especially for its score, with some of the most beautiful songs in popular music, and innovative choreography by Agnes de Mille. Under the watchful eyes of Rodgers and Hammerstein, it made a glorious transition to film in 1955.
Even with such big theatrical shoes to fill, the cast and crew at Stagecrafters have done an admirable job of staging this juggernaut of a show. Set in 1906, just before the Oklahoma territory was granted statehood, the story is at turns sweet and whimsical, with romance, comedy and just a touch of magic. At the dawn of the Twentieth Century, in times marked by modern inventions and cultural change, two very different pairs of lovers must decide who to marry, and the farmer and the cowman must be friends.
The romantic leads, Laurey (Haley Rossi) and Curly (Geoff Wrobel), show some fine vocal talent and stage presence. Rossi’s lovely soprano is spot-on, and she moves gracefully onstage. She has some truly beautiful numbers (“Many a New Day”) and duets with her leading man (“People Will Say We’re in Love”). Wrobel has a soft, mellow baritone/low tenor voice and a pleasing, if uneven, interpretation of his character. Jud, Curly’s would-be rival and the major source of dramatic tension, is played by Justin Digue in an understated yet menacing performance, with superb vocals.
The secondary couple is portrayed by Liz Schultz as Ado Annie, and Robert Zak Shugart as Will Parker. They generate a sparkling chemistry when they’re together, and separately they command the stage. Schultz is a genuine livewire, with great comic chops and a belter’s voice. The real showstopper, however, is Shugart. He is bright and engaging, with excellent tap-dancing (yes, tap-dancing in Royal Oak!) and a voice worthy of the Great White Way. It’s easy to see that Ado Annie’s flirtation with the slick Persian peddler Ali (a delightful Jude Purcell) poses no danger to Will, but it’s fun to watch and offers some of the show’s best musical numbers (“I Cain’t Say No!”, “All ‘Er Nothin’ ”).
At the end of it all, there’s a rousing anthem to the brand-new state, “Oklahoma”, in an ensemble performance that is nothing less than thrilling. Opening night did see some rough spots, though, especially with the orchestra, which was often flat, other times too loud (perhaps a mic problem?). But the lively spirit of the cast, with strong guidance by director and music director Randall Wrisinger, propels it over the top. The simple set makes scene changes as easy as changing the lighting, with excellent effects by Matt Weber. Also notable is the work of choreographer Valerie Mould and costume designer Teresa Lavallee, whose period clothing is evocative of the time.
Wrisinger’s affection for classic musical theatre is evident. This is a breezy and likeable show, the perfect way to close out Stagecrafters’ 63rd season.
When: Now through June 9, 2019
8:00 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays
2:00 p.m. Sundays
Tickets $21-$27; also discounts for Veterans and youth age 17 and under, Sundays and Thursdays
Where: Baldwin Theatre, Main Stage
415 S. Lafayette
Royal Oak, MI 48067