[ All Photos by MELISSA TAYLOR. Click any photo to enlarge ]
There is bittersweet irony in the fact that the supremely joyful current OKLAHOMA! production from Theatre Under the Stars began its run at Houston’s Hobby Center on this past week’s September 11th anniversary of one of the most tragic events in American history. Skillfully directed here by Kevin Moriarty, what better way to lift the spirits on such a somber occasion than to present this magnificent edition of the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, now celebrating its own 75th anniversary? And what better way to celebrate the beginning of the TUTS 50th Anniversary Season?
TUTS Artistic Director, Dan Knechtges, is to be specially commended for initiating, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey’s tremendous destruction to the Houston Ballet’s home at the Wortham Center, a new collaboration with that company and its renowned Artistic Director/Choreographer, Stanton Welch. That new partnership now culminates in this glorious production, featuring more than twenty of the company’s brilliant dancers (that at various performances will include such established stars as Jessica Collado, Melody Mennite, Ian Casady, Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, Christopher Coomer, and Brian Waldrep), during the exquisite, “Out of My Dreams,” ballet sequence featuring the original choreography of the legendary Agnes de Mille.
Set in the farm and cattle country of early 19th century Oklahoma, the story centers on the flirtations and budding romance between handsome cowboy, Curly (Sam Simahk), and a sweet farm girl named Laurey (Olivia Hernandez).
She lives with her Aunt Eller (Priscilla Lopez), in a rustic farmhouse, and Laurey coyly enjoys resisting Curly’s advances, though he is not easily dissuaded.
Meanwhile, the sinister farmhand, Judd (Eric Ulloa) creates plenty of tension as he has eyes for Laurey as well.
On the lighter side is the flighty and amusing romance between young Ado Annie (Madeline Hamlet) and her presumed fiancée, Will (Christopher Campbell), with her additional suitor, the traveling peddler, Ali Hakim (Hassan Nazari-Robati) adding to the fun. Of course, as with all R&H musicals, the marvelous music is king. With some twenty fine musicians in the pit, Musical Director, Kimberly Grigsby, was more than up to the task as he first took baton in hand to conduct the sublime opening “Overture.” Countless other delights would follow showcasing the gifted actors, dancers, singers and ballet stars assembled for this memorable production.
Right from the crimson morning sky of Curly’s sensational opening number, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” the warm lighting from designer, Jason Lyons, and authentic country costumes of designer Karen Perry, would beautifully illuminate the scenes.
Mr. Simahk’s solid and beautiful voice, combined with his rugged good looks, made me quickly think of the young Howard Keel. He would bring that same brilliance to numbers like the cheerful, “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” and the magnificent love duet of “People Will Say We’re in Love,” with the vocally gifted Ms. Hernandez. Her bright and perky characterization of young Laurey peaks in the lovely, “Many a New Day,” when she is sweetly joined by the girls in the ensemble.
There are knockout numbers like “Kansas City,” led by the energetic talent of Mr. Campbell, and the Act Two opener of, “The Farmer and the Cowman,” highlighting the feisty talents of Ms. Lopez. Both songs feature the dazzling singing and dancing of the full company, and the brilliant stars of Houston Ballet.
Along with the overall joy of the piece, as often typifies R&H musicals, there is an underlying touch of serious drama as we see here in the storyline surrounding the ominous character of Judd. Mr. Ulloa brings such passion to that role that I found myself wishing Judd would have a better outcome than the one I knew was coming. Nevertheless, there is abundant witty fun when Curly sings the hilarious funeral spoof, “Pore Jud is Daid.” And speaking of wit, there is plenty of that throughout the book of this very amusing show that will leave you with a special glow when the full cast of more than sixty artists comes on stage for the finale of the title song.
OKLAHOMA continues through September 23rd at Houston’s Hobby Center main stage with performances Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, & Sunday at 7:30 pm, Friday & Saturday evenings at 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. The September 23rd matinee will be the final performance. For tickets visit the website at http://www.thehobbycenter.org, or call (713) 558-8887 locally, and (888) 558-3882 (outside of Houston).