OGDEN — After a long pause, Good Company Theatre has opened back up with a world premiere of a show called Fremont Junior High is Not Doing Oklahoma!, written by Paul Michael Thomson and directed by Penelope Caywood. The show follows a drama club at a junior high as they grapple with aspirations of performing a classic of the American theatre — while being good global citizens in a changing landscape of a woke narrative. At its foundation, Not Doing Oklahoma! explores how and why performers tell the stories they do on stage.
Led by drama club president Chrysanthemum (played by Joseph Branca), the club and the audience are taken on a whirlwind of humor and surprising introspection while watching teenage hormones and ambition wrestle with what is the write thing to do within the limits of their own age, race, sex, identity, and power. Chrysanthemum and his best friend Phylicia (played by Talia Hess) find themselves at odds regarding what is the best thing to do for the club, the school, and social justice when all hell breaks loose (literally and figuratively).
I was impressed with the writing, technical aspects, and acting of this premiere at Good Company. What started out as lighthearted frivolity seen in every junior high school theatre department quickly delved into the questions of racial justice and who is doing what for the right or wrong reasons and why. Thomson’s interesting look at all sides of the issue was compelling in the writing, and Caywood as a director was impressive in making the material relevant and thought provoking while not preachy. The final product is a story about 14-year-olds that a 42-year-old critic can find interesting.
Zaza Vandyke as Alexy, a nonbianary individual who is indispensable to the group as a set designer, stage manager, and costume manager, served as a voice of true reason, discussing exactly why Oklahoma! is a problematic part of American theatrical history. It is legitimate to ask why companies continue to produce shows from bygone eras, such as Oklahoma!. Except for the recent revival that I reviewed on Broadway (which presented the play more like the horror show it deserves to be), Oklahoma! is not a show I particularly like. Vandyke’s performance was believable and moving, matching well with Branca, but showing empathy to the other characters, especially newcomer Travis. Played by Alvaro Cortes, Travis is the moron of the group, but Vandyke’s character treats Travis with the respect that the others seem to lack.
Rounding out the cast are Scotty Fletcher as Zac and Alec Kalled as Jack, a gay couple. One is handsome, always gets the lead, and is a jerk about it, and the other who is a kind and lovely human being who is taken advantage of. Kalled’s talent is understated in the script but not on stage, where he shines with every scene that he portrays.
The set, designed by Alina Cannon, reminded me exactly of how my sister, who is a junionr high and high school theatre teacher, might set up her classroom. Lighting design, by Marley Keith, was extremely creative, especially at moments when The Scottish Play was mentioned on stage, which anyone who has spent any time in theatre knows how catastrophic that can be.
Costumes, designed by Citali Urquiza, were perhaps the most accurate aspect of this production. I have a 9th grade theatre student living in my home right now, and I can attest that I have seen a variation of every single outfit that I saw on stage. The actors looked like they could walk through my doors, from the overachieving Phylicia, to the overly perfect styled Chrysanthemum, to the fantastic Alexy, to the awkwardly straight Travis. The costumes added to the sense of chaos that 21st century kids must grapple with and make sense of.
At the end of the show, Alexy asks how are people supposed to affect change when the structures keep changing. The meaning was not lost on me as a critic and audience member. As children coming of age, what legacy has been given to them? And what have adults done to help them make sense of it? These are the questions that Fremont Junior High is Not Doing Oklahoma! grapples with.
Finally, it is important to state taht Good Company has had the strictest protocols for Covid that I have had since returning to the theatre, requiring proof of Covid-19 vaccination or test within 72 hours as well as masks. Because their space is small, this is a good and safe choice for their actors. It has been a difficult time nationally for small theatres, and it was nice to be able to walk into the theatre again and see it operating.