Sometimes you’ve just got to leave history alone and not bother to try to remake yesterday for today.
And thank all the lords that Jill Anna Ponasik and Skylight Music Theatre show just that precise great sense and taste as they put a piece of history on stage with a verve and respect that creates an absolutely delightful evening of musical theater.
More than half a century ago “Oklahoma” changed the course of American musical theater, melding songs and dance into the fabric of a show that told a story. Almost single handedly the show created theater where music was performed in service to the story, the exact opposite of what musical theater had been to that point.
Ms. Ponasik, the pixie who regularly delivers surprising and chimerical theater with her Milwaukee Opera Theatre, has assembled a cast of 11 actors/singers/dancers and some brave and courageous designers and musicians to stage what has to be the happiest show in Milwaukee so far this season.
Part of the happiness comes from the familiarity of such great Rodgers and Hammerstein songs as “People Will Say We’re In Love,” “Surry With The Fringe On Top” and “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning.”
The other part of the happy joy comes from some surprises in a production that adds dimension without taking anything away from the “Oklahoma” we all know and love.
The story, based on a 1931 play, “Green Grow theLilacs,” tells the story of two boys, Curly and Jed, who are both in love with the lovely Laurey Williams, who with her Aunt Eller, run the farm on the edge of town in Indian Country.
The first surprise of this production is remarkable for the fact that it really isn’t much of a surprise at all. In this production, Laurey (Brittani Moore) and her aunt (Cynthia Cobb) are black. The fact that I said “oh, they’re black” to myself and then moved easily into the story, was a surprise showed how far we have come with color blind casting. It didn’t make any difference.
The show, set delightfully with a prominent band visible upstage and minor evocative trappings down, opens with “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” sung by Curly (Lucas Pastrana).
Mr. Pastrana has a lovely tenor with an easy range that carries us eagerly into the music . He’s a young man dripping with charisma and ability. He is sweet and tender and tough and handsome all in one cowboy package.
The object of his affections is Ms. Moore who is just as cute a little button as she needs to be. She has a thousand watt smile and a lilting soprano perfect for an object of masculine affection.
Jeremy PeterJohnson plays the farmhand Jed as ghoulish and threatening as you can imagine. Mr. Johnson is making his debut in Milwaukee and brings a heightened level of drama to the otherwise sunny story. His chilling character creates a strong contretemps for Curly to battle against.
“Oklahoma” set the pace for so many musical theater gems by designing a pattern of bit musical moments that both fit and advance the story being told. It allowed for shining moments for actors throughout the production.
A perfect moment is created by Hannah Esch who plays Ado Annie, the man-crazy daughter of a farmer. Ms. Esch is introduced with “I Can’t Say No,” the heartfelt and exuberant anthem of all the girls who like all the boys just as little too much.
Ms. Esch is a show stealer, with a big persona and vocal cords made of steel (a description provided by someone who knows a lot more about music than I do). She is a young woman who truly commands the stage and has a comedic touch that should carry her along way in the world of musical theater.
The joys of this production are achieved by a mixture of loyalty to the original and courage to update and refine things that shine.
The choreography ofJames Zager is a perfect example.
The first act ends in the famous dream ballet – Laurey’s dream of both the possibilities and fears of her life.
Mr. Zager stays true to the conflicts that plague Laurey but adds a distinctive focus on both the pleasure and pain of being young and in love. He does pay homage to the original choreography by including a few moments of can-can, the hallmark steps of the original.
The second act opens with more of Mr. Zager’s work and the exciting “The Farmer and the Cowman,” the “we should all get long song.”
This is a song full of humor and delight as well as a slightly hidden message of coalition of all people. He has created a spectacular dance to lead off the second act. It’s high energy and it gives ample opportunity for all dancers to dance and it quickly shakes any intermission-fueled sand from your eyes.
This may well be the best and most challenging work I’ve ever seen from Mr. Zager.
Milwaukee is very lucky right now with two classic musicals playing at the same time. Buth “West Side Story” at The Rep and the Skylight’s “Oklahoma” are in the discussion for most important/best/greatest of all time musicals. Each of these productions is absolutely outstanding.
This “Oklahoma” must also be viewed in the shadow of the Broadway production that has gathered such praise and which is about to start a national tour. That show takes a pickaxe to the original, highlighting all that is dark about the show. Much to the credit of Skylight, there is faith on display in the Cabot.
I rarely actually recommend going to see a play, but in this case, you have a chance to see the grandest history of musical theater in the same city. Don’t miss.
Cast: Curly McClain, Lucas Pastrana; Aunt Eller, Cynthia Cobb; Laurey Williams, Brittani Moore; Will Parker, Sean Anthony Jackson; Jud Fry, Jeremy Peter Johnson; Ado Annie, Hannah Esch; Aliu Hakim, Ethan D.Brittingham; Gertie Cummings, Christal Wagner; Andrew Carnes, Chad Larget; Cord Elam, Emanuel Camacho; Kate, SaraLynn Evenson; Slim, Stephanie Staszak.
Production credits: Director, Jill Anna Ponasik; Music Director, David Bonofiglio; Choreographer, James Zager; Scenic/Lighting Designer, Peter Dean Beck; Costume Designer, Karin Simonson Koposchke; Production Stage Manager, Daniel J. Hanson; Production photographer, Mark Frohna.