Everything’s up to date in Oklahoma! The classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical feels fresh and cozy in a production that manages to have the emotional immediacy of a studio theater production even in a 360-seat proscenium theatre modeled after and 18th century European opera house. Director Jill Anna Ponasik does some very interesting things with both casting and staging in a surprisingly enjoyable production of a show that’s been around for over 80 years. A diverse cast and a clever use of stage space make for a fun trip to a happy, little musical dream that still holds considerable appeal.
Scenic Artists Catherine Lottes and Nerissa Eichinger have done very sharp work under Scenic/Lighting Designer Peter Dean Beck in a space that feels very big in a very small way (that’s also very big.) The orchestra sits onstage in the background in a set-up the fits into the overall feel of an old-timey pre-statehood Oklahoma. (The unmistakable presences of percussionist Michael “Ding” Lorenz asserts itself in a variety of different bits of folsky old-timey-ness including a deftly-hung set of cast-iron-looking pans.) The large musical ensemble set-up right onstage is reminiscent of shows that Ponasik has done with Milwaukee Opera Theatre. It’s a warm, welcoming environment that gives musicians a place that’s every bit as prominent as the space that the actors perform in, allowing for a greater sense of community in and within every element of the production.
A set-up that welcomes musicians onstage with performers is particularly quaint for a small-town Oklahoma feel, but what about the space? Well...there’s quite a vertical space in that old 18th century-style proscenium. The sky above the action feels positively overwhelming next to the cozily cluttered, little social ensemble onstage. Peter Dean Beck’s lighting makes big use of all that vertical space to make Oklahoma seem like a wide-open space brimming with possibility while keeping the sparse social space of the old, rural west suitably small. In a small town, everyone knows everyone else. It’s a small, talented ensemble that occupies the space. It’s small but it’s big. (In a small way that’s also big.)
Ponasik works with a very talented cast to develop every single character in the ensemble. The small, intimate stage feel of the production amplifies a sense of uniqueness in everyone inhabiting the musical. Those sitting close enough to the stage will see a very sophisticated social community dynamic. Thanks to Ponasik and a very talented cast, every character seems interesting enough to hold the center of the stage. One pictures even minor characters going about mundane daily tasks like hanging laundry or working the farm or working the ranch singing as they do so with Lorenz and company in the background constantly providing musical accompaniment.
Central characters like Curly (played by the charismatic Lucas Pastrana) and Laurey Williams (a stunningly heartfelt Brittani Moore) makes a prominent appearance in the center of the story, but I found my attention drawn around the edges. Ethan D. Brittingham’s comic precision as the traveling peddler Ali Hakim lends laughs to even the slightest lines. Hannah Esch is a formidable presence (force of nature really) as Ado Annie.
In a remarkably clever bit of staging, Dance Captain Stephanie Staszak plays the traditionally male role of cowhand Slim. She’s right there with the rest of the guys. Staszak plays it very cool and charming as a very assertive woman with earthbound grace in a line of work traditionally limited only to men. Rather than try to make her play the role as a man, Ponasik and Staszak let Slim glide out naturally from the actress’ genuinely pleasant stage presence. It’s a very cool decision. Choreographer James Zager gives Staszak and the talented Christal Wagner (who plays Gertie Cummings) some particularly graceful moments of dance in and amidst the action of a very, very enjoyable trip to dreamy musical antiquity.
The Skylight’s production of Oklahoma! runs through Oct. 13th at the Broadway Theatre Center on 158 N. Broadway. For ticket reservations, call 414-291-7800 or visit The Skylight online.