By Maren Scriven,
Utah Theatre Bloggers
Posted: Monday, July 28, 2014

LOGAN — Oklahoma! was the first musical that the very popular team of Rodgers and Hammerstein created together, and through the years it has been the subject of critical acclaim, awards, and accolades. Because of this, the show is one that is done by many theatre companies, communities, and high schools. The music is well known, well liked, and quite popular. The story is of two couples as they find love and plan a new life in the territory that is about to become the state of Oklahoma.

Utah Festival Opera is in their 22nd season of providing opera and theatre to audiences in Cache Valley, and those willing to travel to Logan to see a show. Oklahoma! is performed in the Ellen Eccles Theatre on Logan’s Main Street in Logan, and having spent many years at Utah State University, one of the draws to review this show was to arrive in time to go to one of the many enjoyable local restaurants and shop around in some of the main street shops before curtain. Logan is a town that knows how to welcome it’s visitors, so I suggest that if you decide to travel to see this or another production by UFOC, take enough time to stroll down Main Street, get a bite to eat, and head over to Gossners for cheese and milk before you go home.

The best thing about this production was the live orchestra, conducted by Karen Keltner. As the orchestra began to tune, and Keltner came to the helm, I could tell from Keltner’s professionalism and orderliness that I was going to enjoy the orchestrations greatly. In each of the large numbers, such as “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “Kansas City,” and the title number, the impeccable orchestra was easily one of the best I have heard this year in Utah theatre.

The set, designed by Timothy Case, was a beautiful sight to behold. The majority of the setting is based outside of Aunt Eller’s farm home, and the workmanship of the wood house, windmill, and trees in the background were intricate and impressive. There were a few scene changes, and each had the same attention to detail as Aunt Eller’s home. One of my favorites was an addition of a night sky that, thanks to lighting designer Christopher Wood, gave the scene a very realistic nighttime ambiance. Finally, the costuming designed by Phillip R. Lowe was exquisite. The details on the women’s dresses, the hats, and the chaps of the cowboys were appealing to me, and every detail made the entire show visually appealing.

When the opening number of “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning,” sung by Curly (played by Wes Mason), began, I was reminded that this is an opera company. Therefore, the voice of the actors were a lot fuller and more operatic than any other production of Oklahoma! I have ever seen. Mason had a superb voice, and the volume of his voice easily carried throughout the whole performance hall. Mason’s singing was also strong during many of the duets he sang, particularly “People Will Say We’re In Love,” with Leah Edwards as Laurey. Edwards, too, has a strong voice, but hers also had a charming quality that evident in all of her songs, most especially in “Many a New Day,” where she also showed her strength in acting ability, as well as her voice.

A song that is usually one of my least favorite numbers, “Jud Fry is Dead,” was actually exceptionally well performed in this production due to the harmonization of Mason and Kevin Nakatani, playing Jud Fry. The strong, beautiful singing caught me by surprise because the piece is such a sad and almost mean song. Nakatani was excellent in his portrayal of the lonely, confused, and frightening Jud Fry.

Other supporting characters, such as Ado Annie (played by Caitlin Beitel) and Will Parker (played by Bray Wilkins), also added to the positive aspects of the show. The number “All Er Nuthin’” was one of the most amusing of the evening, with the two actors not only using their musical abilities, but also using their skills of physical acting and comedy to great effect.

However, when it comes to acting, Vanessa Schukis as Aunt Eller stole the show. During “The Farmer and the Cowman,” she moves and acts so delightfully that she singlehandedly made the song one of the most memorable of the show. Schukis is a strong comedic actress who knows how to play to her audience and cast. She also has a lovely, strong voice and is able to be the stoic character of wisdom and strength that this show needs.

Finally, the chorus members of this show deserve strong praise for their ability to bring together an excellent choral number. This, too, is perhaps indicative of the fact that the cast is part of an opera company. The famous title number, “Oklahoma!”, had some of the strongest chorals I have ever heard on the musical theatre stage, and I found myself not minding the second and third reprise. In addition, the choreography (by Maggie L. Harrer, Lauren Champ, and Stefan Espinosa), added to the strength of the show, especially during “The Farmer and Cowman” and, of course, the dream ballet.

As we near county and state fair season, Oklahoma! is an excellent show to enjoy. It’s also nice to be reminded of the rich heritage of musical theatre and the vision of Rogers and Hammerstein. Director Maggie L. Harrer has kept very true to the original concept of the show, and I believe audiences in 1943 were treated to a very similar production as the one I saw today.