Oklahoma! Oh, What a Beautiful Play

When one goes to review a student production of a play, one’s tendency is to go with a gentler ear… and pen. After all, how can you criticize these young adults giving their all on the stage, some for the first time, many on return trips across the boards, and not crushing their spirit, tenacity, and determination?

Not to bury the lead, but Playhouse Stage Company has done it again. The “student branch” of the company,  performers aged 14-18 is stacked with so much unbridled talent that the Capital Region has in its midst is spellbinding. Currently in the second week of the run of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, “Oklahoma!”  This production stands up to and in many ways surpasses any full-on adult production, professional or otherwise,  of this show to be mounted in this area in years. 

We have been given a lighter “Oklahoma!” than the recently produced New York revival, due primarily to Brandon Jones’s innovative musical direction and orchestrations replacing the traditional 20 plus piece orchestra normally found in the pit, with an on-stage six-piece bluegrass ensemble. The music just lends itself to a much happier and less formal sound. The harmonies both from the performers and the band heretofore not heard in the score also update the entire feel of the show.

Chuck Kraus, the company’s Artistic Director, takes the director’s reins of this production and has streamlined the show’s script without losing any of its soul or spirit. One noticeable loss is the iconic dream ballet which on the small Cohoes Music Hall stage would probably never have worked. What Kraus has presented us with is a two-hour production that still has all of the heart, most of the angst, and much of the drama and comedy that Rodgers and Hammerstein first presented almost 80 years ago. The conflict of love and hate, stereotypes, good vs evil, and the limited somewhat skewed vision of life still hold up, perhaps even more strongly when examined against what the world is facing today. You realize you’re in for something special with Kraus’ staging of the opening tableau of performers on the stage and in the aisles of the theater. He creates a beautiful picture from which the story springs to life. 

Ashley Simon Kirchner’s choreography, Samuel Reilly’s whimsically imagined set design, Alena Samoray’s lighting, and Katherine Scott’s costume design all help to bring this production into focus.

The real highlight of the show is the amazing talent of the cast of 14 area middle and high school students who give it their all; acting, dancing, and singing their hearts out on the stage.  Emma Cornish as Ado Annie is the comic relief with the perfect voice, facial expressions, and whimsy. Xavier Allen’s Ali Hakim the Persian peddler, Andrew Kirby as Will Parker, Ado Annie’s lovesick suitor, are both perfect foils for Annie’s character. Grace VanBowen as the matriarch of apparently the entire Oklahoma territory, brings a nuanced maturity to the role of Aunt Eller, serious, but not too serious and always in on the fun. Garrett Collins as the tragic Jud fry rounds out the supporting characters. His rich voice adds texture and depth and is the ideal counterpoint to the others on the stage. 

The evening belongs to Megan Calos as Laurey and her love interest Curly, deftly handled by JJ Razzano. Calos has a beautiful lyric voice that marries Razzano’s rich tenor and makes them sound as if they were made to sing together. Razzano is a sheer delight from the moment we hear his acapella off stage strands to Oh What A Beautiful Morning through the final notes as he brings the show to its close. 

The music is classic Broadway, re-imagined and brought back to life in a new and exciting way. The performers, students though they may be, are all consummate professionals and a joy to watch on the stage. The downside, if there is one, is that the Music Hall stage does not, by its size limitations lend itself to large-scale casting and big production numbers. The upside is that this cast makes you forget about the former and you don’t miss what you haven’t seen.

It is incredibly refreshing and exciting to see the talent that the Capital Region has in its youth. Go support and encourage these rising stars. Applaud not only their devotion to the arts but their talent. It will be an evening you’ll be glad you participated in.

“Oklahoma!” runs through Sunday, March 13 at the Cohoes Music Hall, on Remsen St. Cohoes. For information: www.playhousestage.org or call: 51-434-0776.

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