Saturday, April 21, 2018

With Fringe on Top: Marriott's Stately 'Oklahoma' a Bit Better Than Just OK -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire
Thru June 10

In years--or more so decades--past, Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire seemed to be best known for solid productions of classic musicals.

West Side Story, Damn Yankees, Carousel, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver, etc., etc.

Though it would be wrong to imply there wasn't always a bit of adventurousness--along with considerable quality--it seems to me that in more recent years, the self-producing theater has put more of a focus on mixing things up.

There have been self-commissioned musicals, such as Hero and October Sky, shows that skew a bit younger (Mamma Mia, Newsies, Spring Awakening) and stagings of lesser-known musicals both old (She Loves Me, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) and relatively new, like Honeymoon in Vegas and their sublime rendition of The Bridges of Madison County last summer (which I raved about here).

The venue's last non-children's production, Ragtime, is somewhat in the traditional vein, but its themes of immigration, racism and activism made it feel especially timely.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
Currently upon the in-the-round stage is Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma, which was brilliantly modern when it hit Broadway in 1943--it's widely-regarded as an idiomatic cornerstone, as its great songs integrate rather seamlessly into the narrative, as opposed to "everybody stop-and-sing now" earlier musicals--but while meriting a 75th anniversary revisiting, it is more of the type of old school musical Marriott used to present much more often.

And though I certainly relished hearing fine renditions of wondrous tunes like "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "The Surrey With the Fringe On Top," "Kansas City," "I Cain't Say No," the title song and more, enough for it to have made for an enjoyably spent 2-1/2 hours or so, for whatever reason--including perhaps comparison to what Marriott Theatre has recently done--it too rarely felt amazing, incredible, awesome or whatever word best describes an innate specialness that is hard to define.

I mean no absolutely no disrespect to--and indeed, considerable admiration for--Oklahoma's two main stars, Brandon Springman as Curly and Jennie Sophia as Laurey.

But after Nathaniel Stampley has been mind-blowingly good in three recent leading man roles at Marriott--in The Man of La Mancha, Bridges of Madison County and Ragtime--and delightfully complemented in the last two by Kathy Voytko, it was hard not to imagine how good the two of them may have been as Curly and Laurey, even if adding a touch more maturity to the roles than normal.

Certainly, under the direction of Marriott Artistic Director Aaron Thielen, with some superb choreography by Alex Sanchez, the cast--headed by Springman and Sophia--comprises substantial singing, dancing and acting talent (plus that of the unseen musicians).

Michelle Lauto is largely delightful as Ado Annie, as she flirts with the emotions of both Will Parker (Aaron Umsted, who leads a fine "Kansas City") and a traveling peddler, Ali Hakim (the likable Evan Tyrone Martin).

Susan Moniz makes for a fun Aunt Eller, while Shea Coffman is properly belligerent as Jud Fry, a farmhand whose crush on Laurey seems to be met with undue hostility, given how she does use him as a pawn in her love game with Curly.

So there's no dearth of well-sung classic songs, stage-filling dance numbers and impressive performances.

And per director Thielen expressing in recent press his desire to make some contemporary tweaks, there are some intriguing touches such as opening the show with a brief ballet that provides some backstory on the orphaned Laurey.

The famed ballet that leads to intermission is, for me, a tad longer than it needs to be, but well-done and narrative-enhancing.

But while there's nothing obviously deficient about this Oklahoma, it lacked something to make it feel truly fantastic.

I realize Marriott can't cast Stampley--who I recently dubbed the venue's best-ever performer--in every show without things getting repetitive, but hearing him approaching Laurey and Aunt Eller with a booming "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" might have provided the kind of chills truly wondrous shows can.

And while I imagine Oklahoma wasn't all that multicultural in 1906--aside from Native Americans who aren't represented in this show--it felt like greater diversity in the cast, perhaps including the leading roles, may have helped with making the musical feel a good deal more modern.

This isn't to suggest anyone onstage didn't deserve to be, especially as I have no idea who may have auditioned.

Certainly, the Ali Hakim character seems a bit ahead of his time--be it 1906 or 1943--and Rodgers & Hammerstein touched on social issues more than one may consider at first blush.

But Oklahoma was their first musical collaboration to reach Broadway, and it generally feels very white.

Still, based on this production. 

I'm sure there are more varied backgrounds represented in this cast than face value might suggest, but while I happily sang along in my head and bequeathed a genuine applause at the end, some kind of oomph was missing.

Which isn't to say more diverse casting--especially if forced--or Nathaniel Stampley (who is a black man) or Kathy Voytko or anyone or anything else would clearly be the solution.

But Oklahoma is a first-rate musical--I loved it at the Lyric Opera in 2013, and to be clear, there wasn't much diversity then either--and Marriott Theatre has consistently been delivering first-rate productions.

Yet while inherently enjoyable, and even quite good--not just OK--this go-round of a venerated classic just didn't put me in a euphoric state.

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