When Riverside Center Dinner Theater opened in 1998, their first show was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, known then (and still) as the Great American Musical. As Riverside Center nears its twentieth anniversary, they celebrate with the show that started it all! The first Broadway production to meld singing and dancing into a cohesive plot, Oklahoma! changed the entire shape and structure of musical theater, and remains a classic to this day. Directed by Penny Ayn Maas and Patrick A’Hearn, and with musical direction by David Rohde, Oklahoma! is ripe and ready for a new generation to enjoy!
A fresh new feature at Riverside (one of many new and exciting renovations), is the live orchestra pit conducted by David Rohde. Every line of dialogue was crisp and clear, and the live music added a rich element to the overall experience. I especially liked how the music and lighting, designed by Michael Jarett, worked together to set the tone, be it dark and brooding or bright and playful.
Known for their Broadway-quality productions, every aspect of a Riverside show is expertly seasoned. Set Designer Frank Foster used a lot of lumber and earth-tones to create the Americana heartland atmosphere, and Gaye Law’s costumes pulled us back to the turn of the twentieth century. I especially enjoyed a creative trick she employed known as a “quick-change,” where one outfit seamlessly transforms into another, as if by magic (and some cleverly-placed Velcro strips, I’m sure). I’ve only seen this technique used before on the New York City Broadway strip.
It’s the early 1900’s, and though Oklahoma has not yet been declared a state, those who call it home know it’s got great potential. Curly (a playful performance by Matt Polson) cheerfully sings “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin”” on the way to the home of Laurey (Jackie Raye) and her Aunt Eller (Kathy Halenda), where he intends to ask Laurey to accompany him to a box social that evening. The pair, though obviously attracted to each other, make for a stubborn pair. They tiptoe around their shared chemistry, both too prideful to admit their feelings first in the number “People Will Say We’re in Love.” When some lighthearted teasing (“The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”) turns into heated banter, Curly leaves Laurey in a confused huff, and she accepts another invitation to the social on a spiteful whim. However, the invite is from her troubled, intimidating farm hand, Jud Fry (Wyn Jake Delano), and Laurey immediately regrets her rash decision. From this choice unravels a night full of tension, rivalry, and deadly danger.
Riverside has put together a fantastic ensemble full of powerhouse vocals and passionate performances. Wyn Jake Delano gives an amazing performance as Jud, who was easily the most complex character onstage. His deep baritone is perfect for “Lonely Room,” a number beautiful full of torment and pity. This character can easily be played as a cookie-cutter “Bad Guy,” but Wyn gives him a depth and range that packs a real emotional punch. Kathy Halenda was a crowd favorite as sassy Aunt Eller, a steadfast figure who wise-cracked her way across the stage, reigning in the young folk with the song “The Farmer and the Cowman.”
While Laurey and Curly’s relationship is a complicated one, their loveably daft friends Will (Calvin Malone) and Ado Annie (Kylie Blair Arnold) have an easy, lighthearted connection. They are perfect for each other, but bubbly Ado Annie is a naive, silly flirt, shown in the number “I Cain’t Say No,” and Will, though sweet and playful, is as dumb as a doorknob. When a flirtation with peddler Ali Hakim (Alan Hoffman, who gets a lot of laughs with this role) goes too far, the future for this dippy duo is put into jeopardy.
Choreographer Penny Ayn Maas puts together some great ensemble routines, with my favorite being the number “Kansas City,” where the excitement of Ragtime melds with country dance moves. However, the “Dream Ballet” is a real joy to watch, and the orchestra shines its brightest here as they play a soft compilation of the prior musical numbers. As Laurey dances her way through a troubled dream, (Jackie Raye is beautifully poignant here), emotions are explored through music and dance.
I am acquainted with the exceptional quality of Riverside Center’s productions, and knowing this, I never pass by an opportunity to see a show there. I’m glad that I am glad I saw Oklahoma!, as it was full of thrills, both lighthearted, and dramatic, and catchy songs that I’ll still be humming weeks from now.
Escape the heat for the evening and take in a showing of Riverside Center’s Oklahoma!
Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
Oklahoma! plays through September 18, 2016 at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts – 95 Riverside Parkway, in Fredericksburg, VA. For reservations, call (540) 370-4300.