Encore Michigan

‘Oklahoma’ lights up the summer at Encore Musical Theatre

Review June 10, 2024 Kent Straith

DEXTER, MI–Let’s cut to the chase and get the bad news out of the way. I’ve never really liked Oklahoma. I don’t find it offensive…simply not in the Top Twenty of the American musical theatre canon, or even in the Top Three of the Rodgers & Hammerstein songbook. I am somewhat skeptical that it should take almost three hours to answer the plot’s central question: Will the pretty teenage girl go to the neighborhood picnic with the cowboy or the farmhand? So, from a storytelling perspective, it was never among my favorites.

That said, there’s never been a time as a lover of musical theatre that I didn’t know that criticizing Oklahoma was like the driver of a Ford Mustang batter-electric-powered Mach-E having some thoughts on how the Model-T falls short. It’s the reality that Without that (the Model-T)…you don’t get to do this, the Mach-e. The indisputable reality is that this art form has no more important stone in its foundation than ‘Oklahoma.’

Opening on Broadway in 1943, it was the first art piece to present a cohesive story through the combination of staged drama, musical numbers, and choreographed dancing, and in doing so, pioneered the form that would would be the definitive structure for a musical until the ‘sung-through’ shows of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice pulled the form back to its roots in opera in the 1970s. It’s not overstating the case that, if you love musical theatre, Oklahoma is why we get to do this at all.

At only 230 seats, the Encore Musical Theatre is intimate, well appointed and comfortable. As is required by thrust staging, there was no curtain, and you could instantly get a sense of the care that went into the presentation. The stage extends above the audience as a canopy of timber and ropes, making the viewer feel very much like you’re in a barn. The farm-country immersion of the theatre is complemented by a surprising nineteen-piece orchestra.

By way of comparison, if you go to see Les Miserables on tour, you’re hearing a fourteen-piece ensemble, and if you see Hamilton, it’s ten. The other was that over half the cast are currently theatre majors at the University of Michigan, only nine miles away, which means not only were they young, hungry, and talented, but had almost certainly worked with each other a lot and had chemistry. And just like that, the lights went down and for the first time in my life, I was looking forward to Oklahoma. And I am thrilled to report that it did not disappoint.

What followed is the most joyous experience I’ve had in a theatre in years. Oklahoma is not weighed down with an overabundance of plot. It’s 1906, somewhere on the plains of pre-statehood Oklahoma. Two guys are fighting over a girl. One is a handsome, tender-hearted jock, and the other is a surly, gruff, anti-social lummox. It’s not hard to see how this is going to go. But the joy is in the journey to the inevitable conclusion.

As Curly, the cowboy, Jason Mulay Koch (U of M, class of ‘25) has the first lines, singing “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’”, and I hadn’t heard half of it before knowing, if the future can be known, that this young man will doing this for the rest of his life. Taking his obvious inspiration from Hugh Jackman’s legendary performance in the 1998 revival, Koch is animated, lively, winsome, and never missed a single note or chance to show off his smile, which is entirely too perfect for life on the frontier of 1906. Aurora Penepacker shines like a quasar as Laurey, the girl who gets in over her head while making the easiest choice between men since…I don’t have a back half of that joke. She chooses Curly, a decision to which there is no downside. Miss Penepacker is a recent graduate of the musical theatre program at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and if Jason Koch has a perfect musical theatre voice, hers is somehow…better? The only advice I could possibly give her this: find your way to a Wicked open-call. Green is definitely your color.

David Moan brings as much pathos and complexity as can be found in the role of Jud Fry, the farmhand who is Curly’s (non) competition for Laurey’s affections. Jud is a dark, malevolent, probably mentally ill character who is most dangerous because he has absolutely nothing to lose. He has no friends, floats unattached through the untamed West as a drifter for hire, and is something of a mirror universe Forrest Gump. Nothing good has ever happened to him, and the only luck he’s ever had has been bad.

You first see the soul and depth to Moan’s portrayal of Jud in his solo near the end of the first act. Julia Glander as Aunt Eller takes a role that isn’t written outside its archetype of the no-nonsense, shotgun-toting, elderly frontier grandma (it was likely a big part of that type’s invention, actually)…and makes the absolute most of it.

I’ve gotten this far without mentioning that this show has a B-plot, and that’s the love triangle between a wagon peddler named Ali Hakim, dim-witted cowboy Will Parker, and the oddly named Ado Annie, the literal farmer’s daughter with all the restraint and good judgment of the classic farmer’s daughter.

Originally, I was confused that the peddler has such an obviously middle-eastern name when not only is this company’s Cody Dent white, but nearly every person I’ve ever seen play this role was white–yet he describes himself as Persian. Having spoken with Dan Cooney, the show’s director who sent me some research on this issue, we came to the conclusion that Ali is a con-man who uses the Persian identity to help him sell tchotchkes and trinkets, and that none of these frontier people have any idea what Persians look like, so it certainly works out for him. That said, all three of these people (Dent, Anderson Zoll, and Maddie Dick) are hilarious, and it’s hard to single one out for their comic timing, as it’s all great and more fun to watch than I remembered.

I come away from this show with a new appreciation for Oklahoma. It remains not in my top three Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals (The Sound Of Music, South Pacific, and Carousel are all better). It’s dated, cliched, and almost certainly problematic for modern audiences. This ambitious production of the show by Encore, though, is wonderful.

Everyone who loves musical theatre should be familiar with Oklahoma to see where we’ve been and how we got to where we are today in musical theatre. It’s easily and without question as good or better than most big Equity national tours, and Cooney’s vision and eye for talent is constrained only by the size of the room he’s working in.

Cooney, who not only directed this show, but founded and still runs this company, is doing something really special in Dexter, and while I hope to return for every show next season, I don’t know if there are any I will enjoy as much as this one.

(Oklahoma! is playing at the Encore Musical Theatre Company at 7714 Ann Arbor St. in Dexter, MI now through June 30th. Tickets are available at www.theencoretheatre.org or by calling the Encore box office at 734-268-6200. Questions? Write to “info@theencoretheatre.org)

Week of 6/17/2024

Current Shows

  • All
  • mon
  • tue
  • wed
  • thu
  • fri
  • sat
  • sun