Originally printed in the Journal Inquirer on Saturday, August 5, 2017
Goodspeed Musicals has done right by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and made “Oklahoma!” one of the best pieces of Connecticut theater I have seen.
With popularity for the show already spreading through word of mouth, the show has added six more shows, extending its run to Sept. 27.
The love story of cowboy Curley McLaine (Rhett Guter) and Laurey Williams (Samantha Bruce), a farmer who spurns Curley’s advances, is about as popular and well-known as any other musical out there.
The show isn’t perfect. It has aged a bit since its initial production in 1943 and some of its attitudes towards misogyny, bullying, and especially suicide can be disconcerting to more sensitive contemporary audience members. But to gloss over these elements or to water down the story would be a disservice to the musical and the reality of the period in which the musical is set and the continued existences of these issues in modern culture.
To no fault of director Jenn Thompson and her creative team, the show naturally has narrative problems in the second act where the plot begins to rush a bit, fracturing it into scenes that don’t quite have the same fluidity as the first act.
The production is beautiful. Wilson Chin’s scenic design is engaging, detailed, and efficient. His collaboration with Lighting Designer Philip S. Rosenberg for the backdrop presenting times of day is gorgeous, with a night time drop that slowly slides in during sunset with stars that subtly twinkle at night.
Katie Spelman’s choreography is fantastic and the dancers who are spotlighted in a ballet at the end of act 1 are almost flawless.
Guter and Bruce are solid leads. Guter did a bit of mumbling early in the first act but eventually corrected himself, becoming more understandable.
In one of the more controversial scenes in the musical, when Curley confronts Jud Fry — played by a marvelously sinister Matt Faucher — about his taking Laurey to a box social, Guter smartly gives a reserved performance, so as not to make his rather un-heroic dialogue come off as malevolent as it is usually performed.
Bruce is an engaging ingénue, and makes Laurey more than just a benign lovelorn heroine. She lets the fears of her choices infect her actions throughout, making Laurey a far more exciting character.
The featured cast is great. Terry Burrell in particular is splendid as Aunt Eller Murphy, with an affectionate balance of the stern elder and the loving doting aunt.
Jake Swain as Will Parker, Gizel Jimenez as Ado Annie Carnes, and Matthew Curiano as Ali Hakim make up the comedic secondary romantic triangle, and all of them have great chemistry together. Jimenez is vibrant as the sexually awakening Ado Annie and Swain and Curiano both give honest performances as their respective beleaguered characters can’t seem to figure out whether to woo or flee from the romantically zealous Ado Annie.
“Oklahoma!” is one of those musicals that is so well-known that a production can sell out on its name alone. Thankfully, Goodspeed did not rest on a name or cut any corners with this production, with a cast that has committed themselves whole-heartedly, giving what is sure to be one of the best shows of the year.