Oklahoma! at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

“Wow, everything is so bright!”, I remarked as I entered the Shea’s Performing Arts Center last night for the production of Oklahoma!. The lights on the stage felt as though they were turned up so high, it almost hurt my eyes. What I didn’t know was that things were about to get extremely dark…

Prior to attending this more recent touring version of Oklahoma! I’d only been familiar with the music from the original and hadn’t actually seen a live production of it. Perhaps it’s a good thing I’m not a die-hard classic Oklahoma! fan because I went into this experience more open-minded than others in the audience. If the original, classic production is your absolute favorite, this may not be the show for you, and I’ll break down exactly why.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Tells the story of a young farm girl, Laurey Williams (Sasha Hutchings), and her relationships with cowboy Curly McLain (Sean Grandillo) and farmhand Jud Fry (Christopher Bannow). There’s an upcoming social event in town and Curly is set on taking Laurey. However, due to their stubborn nature, neither is very good at communicating their exact feelings for each other. This leads to Laurey accepting Jud’s invitation to the box social even though she clearly voices that he makes her feel uneasy and that she’d rather go with Curly. Meanwhile, Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler) has just returned home from a trip with enough money to finally marry Ado Annie (Sis) who seems to have fallen for a Peddler, Ali Hakim (Benj Mirman) in his absence. 

The main premise of the story confused me as I feel like the entirety of the issues faced by the characters could have been avoided if Laurey hadn’t gone to the social with Jud just to spite Curly. At the social, Laurey avoids being alone with Jud until she is finally forced to face him and his unsettling threats. She runs back to Curly, they finally admit their feelings for each other, and they decide to get married all the while fearing Jud’s dangers. The character of Jud is extremely creepy. He mainly resides in an old smokehouse decorated with lewd photos of women and passes his time shooting bats. It’s clear he has become obsessed with Laurey and is often seen pacing outside her window at night. Christopher portrayed a perfectly haunted and ominous version of Jud that you get to further appreciate in extreme close-ups provided by an onstage camera used to project larger than life images of the actors onstage at certain points throughout the show. 

The most chilling scene for me was one that took place between Curly and Jud the smokehouse in Act I. This is the first time all of the lights are completely shut off so the audience is left sitting in total darkness only listening to the sounds of the actors’ voices. Curly discusses how Jud could kill himself and seems to be trying to convince him to do so. When you can at last see again, it’s only the black and white extreme close-up images of the two projected on the back wall of the stage as they each sit face to face holding microphones to deliver their lines. The first gunshot to go off in this scene caught me completely by surprise and caused me to jump along with many other audience members. It’s still hard to see clearly, so you have the anxiety of not-knowing what just happened or if a character was killed. The whole scene made me very uncomfortable, which is exactly how it was intended. When at last the bright lights come back on, you’re struck by the severe contrast of the tone.

Something worth noting is the refreshing diversity of the cast. While television and movies are beginning to display a far more diverse range of actors and characters, professional theatre has been lagging behind, especially for older classical musicals like those of Rogers and Hammerstein. This cast includes an array of various races, backgrounds, shapes, and sizes. Sasha as leading lady Laurey was an outstanding choice. I fell in love with her character choices, stage presence, and musical interpretations. Sis brings a completely new and unexpected representation of Ado Annie. It’s about time we brought similar diversity in casting to classic Broadway productions. 

Throughout the first act, I was pretty onboard with all the new artistic interpretations of this show. It’s the second act that definitely lost me. Act II opens with the Dream Ballet which typically portrays what Laurey is dreaming/hallucinating about Curly and Jud. In contrast, this version mainly displays the dancing abilities of just Gabrielle Hamilton as the Lead Dance. Gabrielle is without a doubt very talented and skilled in various styles of dance. However, the whole sequence seemed a bit too deep, symbolic, and “out there” for your typical audience member to grasp. I felt extremely confused and unsettled at the same time. It was also very long. In fact, the entire show is very long. Two hours and forty-five minutes to be exact. The second part of Act II that lost me was the final wedding sequence and song “Oklahoma”. Without giving too much away, it’s a pretty visual and upsetting representation of violence that contrasts completely with the song being sung. The show almost ends on a nice note! Things are finally going well and happily ever is was near. Then BANG! A tragedy.

Overall, this is a talented cast and creative reimagining of an old favorite. Sean as Curly was another standout for me whose voice will have swooning from the very beginning. Perhaps if you were prepared to experience the darkness and depth of what at one point could have been considered a more fun, light musical, you’d be more open to the theatrical experience. This isn’t a show for a casual theatregoer or your Grandma. This is a show for people who understand the complexity of theatre, symbolism, and artistic expression.

For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Les Miserables’ at Shea’s Performing Arts Center

“One Day More” The National Touring Company of “Les Miserables.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Along with “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Wicked,” and “The Lion King,” Les Miserables is just one of those shows that won’t stop touring. It’s rare to come across someone who hasn’t seen the show or its criticized cinematic counterpart which begs the question, “why bother?”

Whether it’s your first or fiftieth time seeing Les Miserables, it remains a powerful musical that brings audience members to their feet and leaves them in tears”

The long-running musical is based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, following ex-convict Jean Valjean in 19th Century France after he is released from a 19-year stint in jail stemming from stealing bread for his family. After he meets a bishop who offers him food and shelter and lies to protect him from being arrested again, Valjean is motivated to live a more honest and good life while trying to escape shadows from his past, including former prison guard-turned police inspector Javert.

One of the things I’ve noticed about Les Mis since the production design was revamped almost a decade ago is the focus on more raw performances, which was also undoubtedly a result of the popularity of Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and the 2013 film cast singing live in the movie. Since then, including on the musical’s 25th anniversary 2010 album, the vocals have gotten less by-the-book and actors appear more free to shake things up. It was refreshing to see that theme continuing on this tour.

Patrick Dunn commands the stage as Valjean, expressing incredibly intense emotions through an unwavering voice. Dunn is strongest on an audience favorite, the tear-inducing “Bring Him Home.” Preston Truman Boyd is an outstanding and increasingly unstable Javert, slowly unraveling as his views on faith and the law start to blur as the years go on.

Phoenix Best was a phenomenal Eponine, a scrappy and love-stricken street urchin pining after Joshua Grosso’s Marius. While Grosso’s early interactions with Cosette (sweet songstress Jillian Butler), were a touch too silly for my liking, his voice soared on the part; a quality I am thankful for since being scarred by the Nick Jonas 25th anniversary concert portrayal.

While the entire cast was spot on, I have to mention one additional performer – Matt Shingledecker as Enjolras, the leader of the student revolutionaries. For some reason, that is always the performance that makes or breaks the show for me. Fortunately, we were blessed with Shingledecker’s aggressive energy and powerful tenor leading us through the latter half of the show, soaring in every song and inspiring his fellow Frenchmen (and women) to join the cause, no matter how impossible it seemed.

As I mentioned earlier, the newer (relative to Les Mis) production design really expands the set capabilities for the show, which never stops moving. The projections by 59 Productions are especially great coupled with Paule Constable’s lighting design.

Whether it’s your first or fiftieth time seeing Les Miserables, it remains a powerful musical that brings audiences to their feet and leaves them in tears. This cast is vocally top-notch and makes for a memorable evening during this holiday season.

Running Time: Approximately two and 55 minutes including a fifteen-minute intermission.

“Les Miserables” runs through December 15 at Shea’s Performing Arts Center For more information and tickets, click here.