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|Sturdy with Fringe on Top: "Oklahoma!", at the Prospect Park Auditorium through August 17|
|Theatre - Reviews|
|Written by Mike Schulz|
|Monday, 11 August 2014 06:00|
If you’re planning to see Quad City Music Guild’s Oklahoma!, I’d recommend getting to the theatre at least 10 minutes before the presentation begins. Those buying – or hoping to buy – tickets at the door should certainly arrive earlier than that; Friday’s opening-night performance was already nearly sold out, and I imagine word-of-mouth will make the musical’s second weekend equally jam-packed. But 10 minutes seems like an appropriate amount of time to take in this production’s absolute beauty of a set, and besides, you might find yourself forgetting about the set once the cast shows up and gives you even more wonderful things to look at.
With director Harold Truitt also serving as scenic designer, this Oklahoma! offers pretty much what you’d expect to see in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s tale of farmers, cowmen, and their friends: the facades of Aunt Eller’s farmhouse and neighboring barn; a yard spacious enough for a couple dozen dancers; a painted backdrop of corn that’s as high as an elephant’s eye. Yet what might catch your own eye, especially if you’re a frequent Music Guild patron, is the marvelous solidity of the playing area; Oklahoma!’s design is an inspiring example of the realism and detail achievable when a Guild musical doesn’t require the constant whisking on and off of individual set pieces.
Excepting the scenery that’s rolled in, for one segment, to represent the farmhand Jud Fry’s cramped, miserable shack, Aunt Eller’s homestead is Oklahoma!’s only location, and given all there is to take in here, you don’t need another. Complete with a water well and a windmill that stands some 15 feet high, and with the front porch suggesting a decaying domicile kept as tidy as could be, the set that Truitt and his construction crew and painters have fashioned feels truly, impressively lived-in – so homey and inviting, even in its circa-1907 starkness, that it practically becomes the show’s central figure. And lighting designer Zach Chaplin provides effects that add further personality, from the glorious daybreak reds in the “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” opener to the varied shadowy hues that help make Laurey’s “Dream Ballet” alternately warm and creepy, like a nightmare taking place in a rainbow. Adding the dozens of costumes designed by the ever-wondrous Deb Holmes – whose wardrobe selections are both aesthetically pleasing and, as they should, reveal character – Music Guild’s Oklahoma! looks fantastic, and it oftentimes sounds as good as it looks.
Beginning with the overture performed by music director Deb Swift’s 17-piece orchestra, it was implied that, musically at least, we were going to be in very good hands throughout Friday’s presentation. And that feeling only intensified when, right after the prelude, David M. Miller started singing Curly’s introductory solo from off-stage. Miller’s vocals were decidedly strong, but what made them even more enjoyable was that you could so clearly hear the smile in his voice.
Oklahoma! is such a frequently staged golden-age classic that for some patrons, it probably doesn’t take more than the opening refrain for yawning to commence, and even those of us who love the material – it’s probably my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein – may find ourselves, based on previous unfortunate experiences, mentally preparing for the worst. (A badly produced show you can handle; a badly produced classic you can kind of handle; a badly produced classic that lasts three hours is Hell itself.) But when Miller’s cowboy began crooning “Beautiful Mornin’” and you could hear Curly’s joie de vivre, and more than a bit of his preening self-regard, in the actor’s playfully phrased deliveries, you were both put at ease and newly alert; you really wanted to listen to this song we’ve all likely heard too many times before.
Miller held our attention and our interest in all of his subsequent numbers, and the same thing happened whenever Jen Sondgeroth’s Laurey sang. A poised, radiant Music Guild veteran whose confidence and presence expand with each new role I see her in, Sondgeroth has always been the possessor of a gorgeous soprano. Yet like Miller, she really makes you pay attention to what Laurey is actually saying and feeling in her lyrics here, and as vocalists and actors, she and her co-star share fabulous chemistry. With Sondgeroth and Miller almost daring one another to romantically crack, the tentatively flirtatious “People Will Say We’re in Love” is given an extra dose of friskiness.
That’s a quality you’ll find in spades in Truitt’s Oklahoma!, from the superbly short-tempered hilarity of Susan Granet’s Aunt Eller and Scott Tunnicliff’s Andrew Carnes to the delirious cackle of Jess Fah’s Gertie Cummings, and extending to the show’s mostly merry ensemble; Anthony Greer and Callen Brown are particularly engaging without even one word of dialogue between them. (Greer, who also serves as the show’s dance captain, has some knockout bits in choreographer Susie Adams’ “Kansas City” routine that include his landing in the splits, twice, without dropping his beaming smile. Here’s hoping there’s a substantial Music Guild role, preferably a leading one, in his near future.) No one serves up more delight per second, though, than Allyson Martens, whose portrayal of the sweetly dippy, romantically very accessible Ado Annie is a true local-star-is-born performance. Whether accepting – or more frequently initiating – the affections of peddler Ali Hakim (the infectiously funny Scott Peake) or delivering Annie’s signature tune “I Cain’t Say No” with blithely cheerful empty-headedness, Martens proves a sensational comedienne with charisma to spare.
The only times you even mildly sense the performer struggling are during her scenes with Jacob Ruchotzke’s cattle roper (and Ado Annie’s intended) Will Parker, but unfortunately, on Friday, Martens had a lot of company in that regard. Ruchotzke has a good look and a good voice, but his every delivery and reaction suggested that he was feeling out of place amidst his Oklahoma! co-stars; even quick throwaway jokes were imbued with an air of panic. I’m hoping, however, that it was merely opening-night jitters that were keeping Ruchotzke from ever connecting with his fellow actors or his own role, because he certainly looked more comfortable and sure of himself during the curtain-call reprise than he ever did in the hours prior. And I’m also kind of hoping that, since Friday, John Antonin Dieter has either subtly altered or ditched entirely the gravelly character voice he’s adopted for the role of Jud Fry. The man’s acting, especially when Jud attacks Laurey and threatens her with insinuating malevolence, is powerful (aided by the fact that Dieter is a big guy to Sondgeroth’s far more petite gal). His operatic singing in “Lonely Room” is so fine that it makes you mutter "Damn ..." under your breath. But I did find it slightly jarring that, whenever Dieter spoke as Jud, he sounded an awful lot like Jon Lovitz whenever the comedian imitated Harvey Fierstein on Saturday Night Live.
There were a few other random oddities in Friday’s production: Aunt Eller’s apparent inability to hear Curly “sneaking up” on her when he’d already been nearby singing at top volume (which she appeared to be enjoying); the overtly jokey “Pore Jud Is Daid” duet that kept the lyrics’ humor but eliminated all traces of their plot-building pathos; Will Parker’s new cowboy boots apparently re-designed as tap shoes. (Everything really is up to date in Kansas City!) This, however, is mere quibbling. Music Guild’s Oklahoma! is a terrifically entertaining, thrillingly well-sung take on a theatrical mainstay – reverent without feeling beholden – and I wouldn’t have missed opening night for anything, especially considering that its curtain call found ensemble members Dick and Mylene Hanzelka unfurling a banner reading “We got hitched 50 years ago today!” Who knew that, for a golden anniversary, the Sooner State could prove such an ideal getaway spot?
Oklahoma! runs at the Prospect Park Auditorium (1584 34th Avenue, Moline) through August 17, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)762-6610 or visiting QCMusicGuild.com.
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