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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

"Oklahoma" at O'Connell & Company

Review by ANTHONY CHASE


the cast of Oklahoma on stage
Pamela Rose Mangus as Aunt Eller with the chorus of "Oklahoma"

O’Connell & Company maintains a furious pace, producing a huge number of shows in a season.  This month they've knocked out that perennially popular little chamber musical, Oklahoma! by Rodgers and Hammerstein.  This follows productions of Sunset Boulevard, Chicago, La Cage aux Folles, Grumpy Old Men, The Golden Girls, Reefer Madness, Nuncrackers, and Plaid Tidings, with dashes of Diva by Diva in the mix. Betsey Carmichael is always waiting in the wings, boa and BINGO card at the ready.  That was all this season!

 

Things got so hectic that their planned production of Dames at Sea had to be nixed in April, which was probably both wise and necessary!

 

Lately it feels as if these shows are racing, breathlessly to the finish line.  How can you do so much and maintain high standards?  Well, intermittently.

 

I am not privy to the process; I only see the final product.  Perhaps I need to recalibrate my expectations for what I thought O’Connell & Company would do once they had secured their own resident space. I expected tighter, more rehearsed, more creative. Instead, we just got more.

 

Which brings me to Oklahoma!

 

As always, this is a capable production with a fine cast. Director / choreographer Joey Bucheker has, once again, reproduced classic choreography with accuracy. The use of a grandiose pre-recorded orchestra is a bit off-putting for the intimacy of the space and the homespun flavor of the piece, but there you go.  The actors tell the story clearly and proficiently. The whole affair is entirely competent. 

 

O’Connell & Company has always maintained a spirit of friends and family, which often leads us to forgive and even embrace that casual “Carol Burnett” show, “for-the-love-of-the-art” air about the place. We root for this little engine that can and does (and does, and does, and does). It’s the sort of happy energy that can make summer stock and community theater so thrilling, and I would hate for them, ever, to lose that “consider yourself at home” – “phone rings, door chimes, in comes company” atmosphere entirely.

 

I couldn’t help thinking, during Oklahoma!, however, that given precisely the same ingredients and exactly the same people, this could have been something more than just competent. They’ve got Pamela Rose Mangus as Aunt Eller, for heaven’s sake! There is a difference between nailing a show and just pulling it off. This "Oklahoma" could have been something special and unforgettable.

 

Don’t anticipate a slam here.  I have nothing bad to say. This is a very pleasing Oklahoma!  But just because the book musicals of the Golden Age are the sort of thing musical theater folk can churn out like butter, doesn’t mean they should, especially at a time when the standards for musical theater in Western New York have been rising higher and higher.

 

Yes, everyone is well cast and likable. 


a cowboy watches a woman churn butter
Merrick Allen is commendable as Curly; Pamela Rose Mangus makes and fun and appealing Aunt Eller

As expected, Pamela Rose Mangus makes a fun and appealing Aunt Eller.

 

Merrick Allen fills the role of Curly, the consummate Rodgers and Hammerstein leading man, commendably. Ashleigh Chrisena Ricci matches him for appeal as Laurey, acting, singing, and dancing the role with notable grace – including the dream ballet. There’s no Dream Curly or Dream Laurey here. Allen and Ricci do it all.


a cowboy and a bride
Merrick Allen and Ashleigh Chrisena Ricci capably do it all as Curly and Laurey

an actor kneeling on the floor
Michael Wells gives a break-out performance as Jud Fry

Michael Wells always gives reliably strong performances. Heretofore, his greatest opportunity came in Plaid Tidings. How heartening to see him take on a role with the substance and depth of Jud Fry, the complicated villain of the piece. 


Vinny Murphy and Colleen Pine are charming and adorable as Will Parker and Ado Annie

Vinny Murphy and Colleen Pine skillfully snap into the genre as Will Parker and Ado Annie, among the very best of the requisite comic secondary characters who are called upon to deliver some of the best songs in every Golden Age score. Murphy lands “Kansas City,” and Pine’s rendition of “I Cain't Say No” is adorable. They exude charm in "All Er Nuthin'."

 

L. Steven Maisonet ably conveys the peddler Ali Hakim’s rapid succession of one-liners with wonderful humor and charisma.


a woman laughing with other woman in prairie costumes
Sam Crystal goes for the gusto as Gertie

Taking the advice that there are no small parts, just huge opportunities to steal scenes, Sam Crystal makes the most of Gertie Cummings and her irrepressible laughter.

 

In the round-out-the-cast category, we have a chorus that is both proficient and attractive, including Corey Bieber, Matt Rittler, Bryan Sharry, Jeremy Ephraim Meyers, Alexandra Grace Nowak, Megan Mehaney, Samantha Campbell, Leanna Pulski, Macy Gabel, and Bill Baldwin. This team is worked hard, as all the dances and front-of-curtain crossovers are preserved in this production. Baldwin has been worked especially hard -- in addition to playing Andrew, he designed and built the set!

 

We have seen several members of the chorus before in more prominent roles, and others showed a spark of talent and individuality that surely could have been exploited further.  One young woman was dispensing a deliciously world-weary attitude of superiority that caught my eye, as did the confidently languid nonchalance of one of the cowboys. I would like to have been able to attach their names to their characters. There were some very capable dancers, making the extended ballet sequences enjoyable.

 

With pre-recorded music and an entirely familiar score, I would be interested to know just how energetically music director Joe Isgar was obliged to exert himself. The momentum building up to the rousing final chorus of “Oklahoma” did not make my heart race the way it does when I listen to the cast album in my kitchen. The harmonies on “Out of My Dreams” were fine, if not magical. Nonetheless, the singing was, in every way, sufficient. Costumes by Timmy Goodman also filled the bill nicely. 

 

There might not be anything inspired about this generic production, but they do, faithfully, put Oklahoma! up on that stage. Everything about this show is more than O.K., if not quite L-A-H-O-M-A+. 

 

 

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