MAGNA — I hadn’t seen Oklahoma! in years and my two play-going companions, my husband and 15-year-old son, had never seen the live version, so it was a treat to attend The Magna Empress Theater’s production of this classic, directed by Nanny McKenzie.
The Empress Theater is now open after being closed for 50 years. I am so pleased that by whatever means, this charming, historic, cozy theater is now in operation again, with its stage surrounded by stadium seating for approximately 180 on three sides. The set looked very Western, with straw bales and an old-fashioned Western homestead-ish cabin. Above the cabin there was another tier to the set that was used in certain scenes and this gave a broader dimension and was an excellent use of space.
If you’re familiar with the show, Curly begins by singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” Curly, played by Johnny Hebda, has a beautiful well-trained voice and has the appropriate roguish cowboy appearance. He has a conversation with the likeable, fun-loving Aunt Eller, successfully portrayed by Judy McKinlay. Then Laurey, played by April Tritchler, appeared and she and Curly began to interact. Vocally, Hebda and Tritchler are well-matched—both of them are marvelous singers, and they both have youthful good looks. However, the opening scene dragged on and it began to wonder if this show may not be as exciting as I’d remembered it. As I analyzed the opening scene, I realized that the problem may be some stagnant direction (for example, Laurey seemed to be seated for much of the scene) and neither Curly nor Laurey seemed as energetic as I thought they should be. This made it seem like the characters had little connection to one another on stage.
Tritchler has plenty of sass for Laurey, and is a great actress, but when she was in the scenes with Ado Annie, she seemed to lose her sparkle. I wanted to see more from her—to take charge of the stage more. She is the star and has the right to have the spotlight, even though her character is more reserved. She has brains and poise and restraint, things Ado Annie does not have, but could be more of a counterpoint to Annie by having more power, confidence, and movement.
Once all the cowboys came out onstage, the energy level immediately changed, and the show began to shine, illuminated by Curtis Nash as Will Parker. Nash has the big type stage movement that is necessary and delightful to watch, even in such a small arena. His energy is electrifying. He did a rope twirling trick that I thought was an already prepared lasso, so I thought it was just a stage trick. But my husband reports that Nash really does know how to toss a rope, so I stand corrected. Nash can sing, dance, act, and rope! And he’s cute, too. It’s these sort of surprises that keep me in love with live theatre.
The rest of the male cowboy/farmer cast: Brett Hansen, Perry Whitehair, P. Mark Whitehair, Evan Brown, Luke Johnson, Jamie Munson, Arvid Johnson and Harrison Madsen all did well, smiling, clapping one another on the shoulder, tipping their hats, dancing, singing, and flirting with all the gals. I was slightly disappointed that every one of the male chorus except for two men were teenagers or just a bit older. It made me wonder if this was really a youth theater with a few adults thrown in.
The dazzling Jessica Lee, as “The Girl who Cain’t Say No” Ado Annie, Will Parker’s love interest, is every bit as good as Curtis Nash, and her scenes with him and with the brilliant Jeremy Heaps as Ali Hakim are amazing. She is wonderfully ditzy and lively, mincing and prancing all over the stage. She was as delightful as a big ol’ chunk of apple turnover with extra cream on top. Jeremy Heaps’ Ali Hakim is hilarious. Though I realize he has by far the best and funniest lines in the show, it takes a talented comedic actor to make them shine, and he did. After I got a taste for his comedic timing, I couldn’t wait until he got onstage. He also played the Dream Ballet Curly and can dance beautifully.
Which brings me to the choreography of the show. As choreographer, Wendy Brown did a fantastic job of getting quite a few people moving in interesting and different formations and steps for each number, and within a rather small area. I really had expected that we’d see a lot of do-si-do-ing and a few Virginia Reels and that would be that. But, no. All the dance numbers were great. The Dream Sequence between Dream Curly and Dream Laurey—choreographed by Catherine Drake—is amazing. Jeremy Heaps plays Dream Curly and is strikingly paired up with the delicate and talented Catherine Drake. Her lovely ballet en pointe gave me a lump in my throat.
Dave Meacham’s portrayal of the disturbing Jud Fry was good—especially when you realize that playing the creepy, obsessed-with-Laurey bad guy isn’t always the easiest thing to do. The scene between Jud and Curly, Curly’s best scene in the show, was performed on the upper tier of the stage, was really mesmerizing in a slimy, eerie way. I mean, Curly is actually trying to convince Jud to hang himself and telling his sinister rival Jud how wonderful his funeral will be. How he’ll be truly understood and valued for the good man he is inside. Yikes!
The females in the cast all needed to play two different characters as the women the cowboys/farmers were paired up with and also the dance hall girls in the dream sequence. All of the actresses were such good singers with sweet harmonies and tone, and could really dance. Again, I was surprised that it seemed all the females were teenagers or not much older. Even the sheriff had a wife that looked like she could be his daughter. I would have liked to see a mature woman or two besides Aunt Eller, who was the matriarch to all. The actresses in Oklahoma! were Andrea Fife, Arlee Heslop, Katie Asper, Rebecca Meats, Becky Jeter, Amy Dalton, Jessica Eldredge, and Sasha Nugter. Rossy Moreno played an adorable Gertie Cummings, whose annoying chortles made the audience laugh, that sort of awkward kind when you know you shouldn’t but gosh, that person sounds so weird and embarrassing. She is a real standout in the production.
In the second act, there was a set change where the cabin side pieces and door needed to be put back on and it took quite a long time as we in the audience sat in the dark. And it didn’t look like it was secured in properly and I worried that it would topple over and crack one of the actors on the head.
There were two fight scenes: one with Jud and Curly, and one with Jud and Ali Hakim. They were both well-choreographed and gripping. I kept waiting for real blood spurting out of somebody’s eye or something. I got really into it.
I would highly recommend this show, though Magna might be a drive for some. There is a lot of honesty, integrity, and down home fun in the show. The happy ending is pretty neat, too. As a side note, there is a comedy show that is labeled family appropriate that is free to all who came to Oklahoma! on Saturday nights. We didn’t stay for that, but if you feel like having a full night of Western singin’ and dancin’ and then some comedy afterwards, I’d suggest you try both shows.