Porthouse’s ‘Oklahoma!’ earns the exclamation point

By Bob Abelman

Porthouse Theatre patrons still in the throes of depression after seeing the marvelous but mournful “Next To Normal” will most certainly get the giddy-up back in their gait with the joyous production of “Oklahoma!” currently on stage.

The musical – the first of nine shows written by composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II – tells the simple tale of cowhands and farmers finding love and community in the Oklahoma territory at the turn of the 20th century and just a few years away from statehood.

At the center of the story is Laurey (Rebecca Rand), a spunky young woman who runs her aunt’s farm and is courted by the brash cowboy Curly (Matthew Gittins) and the brooding and dangerous farmhand Jud (Sam Johnson). How this plays out is pretty much what this musical is about.

Running parallel is the comedic courtship between the good-natured and air-headed champion steer roper Will Parker (Christopher Tuck), the perpetually flirtatious Ado Annie (Samantha Russell) and the smooth-talking traveling salesman Ali Hakim (Joey Fontana).

In 1943, when “Oklahoma!” hit Broadway, the show and its hummable, delightfully romantic score caught the imagination and patriotic fervor of wartime America. Today, the corn in the script and in the score is as high as an elephant’s eye.

But the show’s stirring optimism still resonates. And this production is so vividly staged and vibrantly sung under Terri Kent’s stalwart direction and with its airy design by Brittney Harrell (costume), Cynthia R. Stillings (lighting) and Nolan O’Dell (scenic, revived from the 2008 Porthouse production), that it is very easy to forgive the work’s terribly outdated socio-political trespasses.

Interestingly, it is not the lead players who are responsible for our forgiveness or who provide this production’s bursts of escapism. While many (Johnson, Tuck and Fontana) are absolutely brilliant in all that they do, others (Rand, Gittins and Russell) have voices strained by the demands of their roles and/or seem to be playing to the balcony of an intimate amphitheater without one, thereby missing what is authentic in and so interesting about their characters.

No, it is the other players who provide the punctuation in the show’s title. It’s Lenne Snively as Aunt Eller, who adds emphasis to every playful or poignant event with a purposefully pregnant pause or an understated but evident gesture. And she takes full advantage of every generous gift Hammerstein throws her character’s way.

It’s the male (Mathew Blasio, Ryan Borgo, Antonio Emerson Brown, Nick Johnson, Jake Rosko, Eoin Rude) and female (Katelyn Cassidy, Merrie Drees, Felicity Jemo, Falyn Mapel, Abby Morris, Liz Woodard) ensemble members, whose contagious energy, gorgeous voices and spot-on execution of John R. Crawford-Spinelli’s choreography help articulate the meaning in the moment.

It’s Crawford-Spinelli’s ballet-imbued country western choreography, which adds the perfect accent to every production number, particularly “Kansas City” and “The Farmer and the Cowman.”
It’s standout ensemble members Fontana, Blasio and Morris, whose dramatic performance of the stunningly conceived Dream Ballet puts an exclamation point to the end of the first act that carries over to the second.

It’s the 12-piece orchestra under Jennifer Korecki’s musical direction, which skillfully underscores every emotion offered by Rodgers and Hammerstein. This is a rousing rendition of an American classic that aims to please and hits its target. CV

WHERE: Porthouse Theatre, 3143 O’Neil Road, Cuyahoga Falls
WHEN: Through Aug. 12
TICKETS & INFO: $22 – $40, call 330-672-3884 or visit porthousetheatre.com

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2018 Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Aug. 9, 2018.

Lead image: Christopher Tuck as Will Parker and Samantha Russell as Ado Annie. | Photo/ Bob Christy