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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Oklahoma!
Grand Canyon University

Also see Gil's review of Brian Stokes Mitchell: Simply Broadway


Allison Gibbs and Alexander Dubois
Focusing on the rivalry between a ranch hand and a cowboy for the hand of a farm girl in early 1900s, Oklahoma!, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's first musical collaboration together, paints a fairly simple romantic story. However, it is also set across the sweeping landscape of settlers and the various social events that take place in their simple lives. Those events include a barn raising and a social dance that provide plenty of big and elaborate stage moments to counter the more intimate and dramatic romantic ones surrounding the love triangle between cowboy Curly, farm hand Jud, and farm girl Laurey. Grand Canyon University just opened their nifty production of this classic musical with an exceptional cast, surefooted direction, and impressive creative elements that turn these simple events into a sweeping story of survival on the prairie.

Rodgers and Hammerstein received a special Pulitzer Prize for the show and several famous songs came from the score, including the opening number "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," the romantic duet "People Will Say We're in Love," and the show-stopping title song. The young GCU cast form a realistic group of settlers, with the college aged actors effortlessly portraying the older characters in the show as well. They also have no problem in their delivery of Hammerstein's excellent dialogue and the vocal requirements of Rodgers' lush score.

As Laurey and Curly, who are both too stubborn to admit that they really love each other, Allison Gibbs and Alexander Dubois are both engaging actors who hold your attention with terrific energy. Gibbs' portrayal of Laurey as a feisty tomboy is a nice change from other productions of the show I've seen, and actually fits in perfectly with the farmworker mentality that the character has. She and Dubois both have rich, clear, and strong voices that deliver beautiful renditions of some of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most classic songs. Fernando Ruiz' sullen portrayal of Jud Fry makes him less creepy and dangerous than I've seen in other productions, but it works and actually makes you care for him, which is a huge compliment to Ruiz' acting abilities.

The secondary characters are mainly around for comic relief, with Iliana Swartz' spunky take as Laurey's Aunt Eller and Devyn Garrett's brassy and flirty Ado Annie, the girl "who can't say no" when it comes to deciding which boy to love, the best of the bunch. While there is a huge ensemble, each actor manages to instill his or her part with independence, which is helped by the fact that Nola Yergen's excellent costume designs aren't similar, so each ensemble cast member stands out. In the ensemble, Taylor Kortman as Ado Annie's father, with his rubber facial expressions and humorous line delivery, and Cole Brackney's impressive acrobatic dance moves make quite an impression.

Set designer William H. Symington has crafted a colorful set that spreads across the Ethington Theatre stage. With the front fa├žade of a pale farmhouse on one side, the side of a bright red barn on the other, the frame of another barn in the middle, and a cloud-filled blue sky in the background, we're right in the middle of the Oklahoma plains. The only thing missing? The rows of corn that Hammerstein's lyrics mention. Claude Pensis' lighting design evokes some stunning sunny days and dark stormy night skies that transform Symington's cloudy sky backdrop with pops of color.

Director Michael Kary skillfully manages his large cast and the comical and dramatic demands of the show. He uses the various entrances, including the steps in the seating area, for dramatic effect and gets expressive performances from each of his actors. Choreographer Susannah Keita has managed to instill a non-professional dance sense to the cast, as if the moves they are doing are just natural movement for them. The somewhat clunky steps for the men make them appear more as cowboys and ranch hands than dancers. So her choreography is perfectly in line with the story, though her act one ending "dream ballet" shows the professional dance abilities of the cast. Musical director Mark Fearey achieves some stunning choral sounding harmonies with the cast, especially in the wall of sound effect they create in the chorus of the title song.

Oklahoma! is a classic musical and, while the story is a fairly simple one, it has vivid characters and many excellent songs. The age of the GCU cast allows the youthful, exuberant emotions of the characters to come through strongly and realistically. With fine leads, clear direction, and vivid creative aspects, the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein show is receiving a winning production.

Oklahoma! performs at Grand Canyon University's Ethington Theatre through March 29th, 2015. The theatre is located at 3300 W. Camelback Road in Phoenix and ticket and performance information can be found at www.gcu.edu or by calling (602) 639-8880.

Director Michael Kary
Musical Director Mark Fearey
Choreographer Susannah Keita
Scenic Designer/Properties Designer William H. Symington V
Lighting Designer Claude Pensis
Costume Designer Nola Yergen
Hair and Makeup Designers Kay Gray, Laura Knittle, Kayana Sweeney
Fight Choreographer Michael Kary
Sound Designer Becky Vice
Technical Director/Master Electrician Jeff Jann

Cast:
Laurey Williams: Allison Gibbs
Curly McLain: Alexander Dubois
Aunt Eller: Iliana Swartz
Jud Fry: Fernando Ruiz
Ado Annie: Devyn Garrett
Will Parker: Gavin Ely
Ali Hakim: Logan Barrett
Gertie Cummings: Corinne Tachuk
Dream Laurey: Joy Flatz
Dream Curly: Preston MacDonald
Susan: Kaylee Atkisson
Armina: Devaune Bohall
Slim: Kit Boyett
Joe: Zane Wiles
Gracie Lou: Kristina Capra
Cord Elam: Andrew Dell
Fred: Hayden Domenico
Kate: Taylor Kessler
Andrew Carnes: Taylor Kortman
Kathleen: Emma Lehtinen
Vivian: Amber Moldrem
Ellen: Laynie Nelson
Mary: Carah Robenalt
Ike Skidmore: Trevor Roberts
Mike: Chase Shepard
Sylvie: Kayana Sweeney
Aggie: Brittany Thomas
Blanche: Vanessa Valdez
Sam: Perry Whitehair
Vladmirov: Cole Brackney


Photo: Darryl Webb / Grand Canyon University

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix


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