Since its Broadway debut back in 1943, 'Oklahoma' has been a favorite of theatre folk. Thanks to what may be the best ensemble to grace the stage of the Larry Keeton Theatre, their current production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is presented with reverence due the iconic musical.
From the show opening 'Oh, What a Beautiful Morning' to Act 2's sing-along-ensuing title tune, 'Oklahoma is chock-full of tunes that, in the past sixty years, have become familiar to most, whether their origin is realized or not.
The early 40s were a transitional time in popular music, especially where performance music was concerned. Because of this, librettist Oscar Hammerstein and composer Richard Rodgers present many of the numbers featured in 'Oklahoma' with a bit of an operatic flare. As the story's male lead, Curly, Keeton Theater newcomer, Dan Keeley takes this formidable bull by the horns from the moment his buttery-churned smooth voice belts out the aforementioned 'Oh, What a Beautiful Morning'. It's easy to see how the on-stage object of his affection, Laurey William (sweetly played by Katherine Graddy) would fall for such a man.
Graddy and Keeley are joined by longtime Keeton Theatre supporter Kim Yearwood as Aunt Eller for the show's second number, 'The Surrey With The Fringe on the Top'. Over the years, I've seen Yearwood in a number of shows at The Keeton and I have to say, she was born to play Aunt Eller. She brings the right combination of spunk, heart and heart to the role of the elder frontierswoman.
Speaking of being born to play certain roles, Tonya Pewitt as Ado Annie and Antonio Nappo as Judd Fry seem to be born to play every role they tackle. I last saw the two of them transform and shine as Shrek and Fiona in a local production of 'Shrek'. In the past I've seen each of them in a wide variety of roles; from blissfully twangy Doralee in '9 to 5' to Roxie Hart in 'Chicago' for Tonya, and from a henchman in 'Kiss Me Kate' to his brilliant recent turn as King Henry the VIII in 'Royal Gambit' for Antonio.
Pewitt's Ado Annie is comedic perfection. her mid-Act 1 'I Cain't Say No' is the stuff musical theatre dreams are made of. Just another reason I refer to her as one of my original 'theatre crushes'.
Nappo has the distinct task of portraying the show's 'heavy'. As Judd, a seemingly dim-witted farm hand with a shady past, Nappo manages to evoke fear and sympathy. After the show, I told him he has to play Lennie in 'Of Mice and Men' one day soon. His 'Lonely Room', while not one of the show's best-known numbers, as performed by Nappo is hauntingly gorgeous.
Ado Annie provides 'Oklahoma' with the shows three other featured men Ben Gregory, Shank Kothare and Trey Palmer. Gregory and Kothare play her suitors Will Parker and Ali Hakim respectively, while a nearly unrecognizable Palmer plays Mr. Carnes, Ado Annie's father. Gregory's act two duet with Pewitt on 'All Er Nothin'' is the ultimate musical ultimatum. While Kothare's Ali Hakim borders on stereotype, he's hilarious as the love-lorn peddler.
Special notice should be paid to the show's costumer Tanis Westbroke and Keeton's stage manger, Suzanne Spooner-Faulk. The costumes in 'Oklahoma' are stunning, and while Spooner-Faulk's contributions to Keeton shows goes unnoticed if done with her usual attention to detail, this time, I have it on good authority that she also contributed to set dressing and even made a few props, including Will Parker's saddle bag and Ali Hakim's trunk full of potions and notions.
Rounding out the featured cast is Brittany Blaire as Gertie Cummins. Another Keeton first-timer, Blaire's one to watch. She's gorgeous, funny and a great dancer. Blaire does double duty as she's also co-choreographer alongside Jamie London. Kudos to these ladies for presenting some great dance numbers.
I have to admit, I've never been a huge fan of the 'Dream Ballet' in any version of 'Oklahoma'. It's just seems out of place and I always find it a bit odd and a bit too long. Thankfully the Keeton's choreographers and London's fellow co-director Ginger Newman opted to excise about ten minutes from the normally 20 minute dream dance. Newman is also Keeton's musical director conducting the heard, but not seen three piece band comprised of pianist John Todd, bassist Luke Easterling and percussionist Nick Phillips. Newman is one of this town's most talented music directors (and a phenomenal singer in her own right) and it's evident by the lush tones that she honors and respects the rich history of the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
All in all, take the advice of Ado Annie and don't say no to 'Oklahoma'. The show continues with performances Thursday-Sunday this week and next, through June 1, with evening shows Thursday-Saturday and Sunday matinees. For tickets or more information, CLICK HERE. Up next at The Keeton, the love of Rodgers and Hammerstein continues with 'Some Enchanted Evening' a show-within-a-show celebrating the music of one of musical theatre's most famous partnership.
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