Arts & Culture

REVIEW: Revival Theatre brings out the humor, horror of 'Oklahoma!'

Dancers swirl around Laurey (Catherine Blades) and Curly (Michael Penick) in “Oklahoma!” Revival Theatre Company’s production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, which is onstage through Saturday in Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College in Cedar Rapids. (Greg Billman photo)
Dancers swirl around Laurey (Catherine Blades) and Curly (Michael Penick) in “Oklahoma!” Revival Theatre Company’s production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, which is onstage through Saturday in Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College in Cedar Rapids. (Greg Billman photo)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry, and so should you, to see Revival Theatre Company’s marvelous production of “Oklahoma!” The groundbreaking Rodgers & Hammerstein musical is onstage through Saturday in Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College.

The show opened Thursday to an immediate standing ovation, and a rousing chorus of cheers greeting each principal actor.

Billed as a concert version of the musical, forget that label. Audiences will quickly forget. All it means is that the orchestra and chorus are seated at the back of the stage, behind the action.

And talk about action. Gunfights, fist fights, ballets, hoedowns, verbal skirmishes and smooches abound, through three hours of nonstop action (except for intermission) and some of the most beautiful singing springing from any Corridor stage.

From the downbeat of the orchestral overture to the moment you hear Michael Penick’s rich, resonate tenor ringing from the wings through “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” you know something special is about to unfold.

Marking the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the show opened on Broadway in 1943, when the nation was in the midst of World War II and the arts were seen as escapism. “Oklahoma!” broke that mold, bringing in lyrics that enhanced and propelled the storytelling, added an extended ballet into the dance mix, and gave audiences plot lines to chew on and digest long after the applause died down.

Set in 1906, one year before Oklahoma was granted statehood, the multilayered story features two romantic triangles — one that’s frightening and one that’s hilarious.

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Cowman Curly McLain (Penick) has taken a shine to the beautiful, spunky Laurey Williams (Broadway actress and Cedar Rapids native Catherine Blades), but her game of hard-to-get backfires when mentally and emotionally unstable hired hand Jud Fry (Joe Wetrich) tries to woo her. He works the farm for Laurey and Aunt Eller (Nadine Borngraeber), but scares Laurey with the way he looks at her. This love triangle is fraught with angst and terror, eventually turning tragic.

On the flip side is the coquettish Ado Annie Carnes (Lauren Galliart) who loves the one she’s with. And with beau Will Parker (Sage Spiker) out of town, she’s flirting with Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Zane Hadish). Naturally, Will comes back into the picture, and the ensuing pursuit provides enough laughter and levity to counter the drama of the other triad.

Undercurrents of tension between the cowmen and farmers, each protecting their turf, come into play, as well. But for today’s audiences, the confrontations between Curly and Jud are bone chilling. Especially ghastly is the scene where Curly goes to Jud’s smokehouse living quarters to bully him, pointing out how easy it would be for Jud to kill himself, imaging the glory of his funeral in the dirge, “Pore Jud is Daid.”

This show is Wetrich’s finest hour. He brings pathos, desolation and fear to Jud, making that character both scary and gravely sad. A river of rage simmers beneath his surface, and when pushed, it erupts in a molten flow that burns everyone around him, and seals his fate. His anger explodes in his powerful lament, “Lonely Room,” which propels the emotion apex of the show and triggers the horror to come.

Artistic director Brian Glick and musical director Cameron Sullenberger have crafted a brilliant production, supported by Megan Helmers’ choreography that kicks it all up a notch; Melonie Stoll’s prairie-perfect costumes; and Scott Olinger’s moody lighting design that adds dimension to a show with intentionally sparse scenery.

Be sure to stay after the bows for a most profound coda, when Bryan Powell of Iowa City steps to the front of the stage to play the Instrument of Hope. The black and brass trumpet contains bullet casings like those used in the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting that killed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Intended to continue the conversation about gun violence, as well as provide healing through the arts, the trumpet’s tone rings clear and pure with the orchestra through “Out of my Dreams,” from the stunning Act I ballet finale that rolls through love, terror and hope.

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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