BHP puts a twist on a favorite classic

By Carrie Moore

Seventy-five years ago, the musical standards were set with Rodger’s & Hammerstein’s first collaboration, “Oklahoma!” And now, that production comes to the Black Hills Playhouse backed by a fantastic cast, crew and production team.
In my opinion, “Oklahoma!” has to be one of the most widely known musicals in the world — or at least in the Black Hills! This past week alone in talking about my excitement of seeing the Black Hills Playhouse’s (BHP) version, I’ve come across three things: many people have seen multiple productions of the show in various locations, individuals (sometimes even the same people prior) have been in a high school or college production of said musical, and, my favorite, an individual has seen the movie version 4,258 times (I think they were joking. Maybe.)…So yeah, a very common musical, indeed. And with that comes the problem of making each production unique to each company. But the BHP puts its magic on “Oklahoma!” making it another one-of-a-kind take on a fantastic story.

I’m going out on a limb here and venturing that you, the reader, has already seen some version of “Oklahoma!” I won’t do a full summary, but here’s the highlights: The musical is set near the town of Claremore, Oklahoma Territory, and tells the story of farm girl Laurey and her courtship of two rival suitors, Curly, a cowboy through and through, and Jud, a sinister farmhand who just wants a girl. For you youngins that maybe haven’t seen a showing yet (yes, “yet” – get to it!) — it’s like “The Hunger Games” in 1906. There’s even a knife fight!! Thankfully, no cornucopias. 

There’s also another love triangle with cowboy Will Parker, his promised fiancee Ado Annie and traveling peddler Ali Hakim. Actually, it’s not so much a triangle as it is a line (you see, Will loves Annie with all his heart and she loves…well, men.)….with like a dotted line next to it (Annie has her eyes on Ali, but he doesn’t really reciprocate). Sorry, I’m terrible with geometry. But you get the idea. 

BHP’s production of the classic musical is helmed by director Bill Russell, Spearfish native, playwright, South Dakota Hall of Fame inductee and wonderfully kind man. Russell expertly directed his cast in this production, meshing personalities, drama and comedy into a ball full of fun. The show was fun with it actors’ impeccable comedic timing and physical comedy, but also had its moments of drama with the love triangle plot between Curly, Laurey and Jud. Russell perfectly balanced all of those emotions in this production. 

Russell has said that “Oklahoma!” is about “creating a community in new and untamed territory” and that he wanted to give this production the feel of a community event, citing the church socials he grew up in. And right from the minute you walk in, you feel that. 

The set, designed by Victor Shonk, makes you feel like you’re walking into a barn, just waiting for a barn dance to begin. The set is done in rustic materials, lending itself to quadruple as a house, barn, shed and outbuilding. There’s a simple platform in the middle of the stage, also serving multi-purposes. It may seem a little basic, especially compared to other sets Shonk has done at the BHP (I still think about “Pageant” and “Nunsense’s” dual sets — the complexity!!), but it’s functional, practical and fits the period.

Lighting, done by Anthony Pellecchia, also helps make the set pop, back lighting some cutouts to give you the feel of the horizon; the windmills and hills in the distance. I really loved how Pellecchia used the lights to create sunrise and the moon, giving the set such dimension.  It was really beautiful.
But the thing that most makes “Oklahoma!” feel like a community event is how you are greeted: by the the cast themselves. As you find your seats, cast members welcome you, shake your hand and talk to you. It’s a personal touch that makes you feel like you’re the only one in the audience. And honestly, it made me regret not going into the theater sooner to get to my seat. Dagnabbit! 

Even during the show, actors engage with audience members, both in the crowd and on stage. Yes, for the second time this season, audience members are allowed on stage. While not as engaged as we were in “Putnam,” actors do interact and exchange glances and words with the lucky ones on stage. It was a fun little twist that made BHP’s “Oklahoma!” that much more unique and thrilling. And in a couple instances, gut busting.

“Oklahoma!” boasts the largest cast of this season — 15 actors total, with all on the stage at the same time in some instances. 

In the iconic role of Curly is Lukas Ptacek, who steps onto the stage singing the iconic “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin.’” Ptacek has a great tone to his voice and portrays Curly — the lovestruck cowbowy we all love — with heart. It’s a big role, well done by Ptacek.

Matching Ptacek note-by-note is BHP newcomer Jacquelyn Kiefner, who has quite the range on her — very impressive for such a tiny little thing! Kiefner played a very strong Laurey, a character I personally find that walks the line of independent frontierswoman and kinda-sorta damsel in distress. I really like how Kiefner’s Laurey had a sharp wit, whether it was trading back comments with Curly (and their duet of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”) or telling off Jud. Kiefner also had some stellar vocal moments; I even heard some “wows” from nearby audience members when she performed “Many a New Day.”

Playing the mysterious and dangerous loner farmhand is Jordan Mitchell. From the moment he stepped on stage, Mitchell gave off an unsettling vibe. Mitchell’s touches of hanging in the background, not caring about personal space and the way he spoke and delivered his lines all made for a brilliant portrayal of Jud. Even at the reception after the show, I hesitated to go up to Mitchell because of his creepy performance. In any other production, that critique would be taken negatively, but for “Oklahoma!” it’s right on the money! Way to be creepy, Jordan! 

Mitchell also did double duty as the fight coordinator, composing the thrilling fight scene in the second act. Even thought I knew how it ended (because, you know, the movie), I was on the edge of my seat, holding my breath. It was well thought out and executed. 

However, the trio of Ado Annie, Will and Ali (played by Josey Miller, Branden Osero and Darryl d’Angelo Jones, respectively) were probably my favorite. The three had so much physical comedy, quick and witty banter and a handful of slapstick bits. The entire audience erupted in laughter whenever Miller’s Annie would set her sights on a man in the audience, because the looks and flirting were just so hysterical. Miller was also equally impressive when it came to signing, boasting quite a range, strength and stamina. 

Osero was a great Will, playing him as a lovable guy, just trying to treat his bride-to-be right. A highlight for me was when Will attempted to sell some of his gifts back to the peddler so he could have money to marry Annie. Osero has a likability to him that showed through as Will, because I — and the audience — were always rooting for him. 

d’Angelo Jones — probably the sharpest dressed cast member of “Oklahoma!” — was my favorite. Whether he was romancing Ado Annie, running in fear of Ado Annie or looking at the end of Ado Annie’s father’s gun — he had everyone laughing. His quick wit, physicality and smile made for a very charming Peddler. I also loved every interaction he had with Aunt Eller (Emily Cherry) – the conversing and comedy were just so easy between the two.

Speaking of Aunt Eller, I love how Cherry portrayed her — strong, reassuring and ready to have a good time. My favorite part had to be when Aunt Eller was giving her niece strength, saying “You got to be hardy.” Cherry’s warm personality radiated through as Aunt Eller, which kind made me want a pep talk. I also loved her bit in “The Farmer and the Cowman,” which opened the second act of the show. Her sass (and gun) proved that she is in no way taking any bull from anyone.

Jeff Kingsbury was a great Andrew Carnes, Ado Annie’s father, who is eager to have his daughter married. Kingsbury had everyone laughing — without even saying a word. With his gun in tow and a unkempt, burly beard on his face, Andrew kept an eye on his lovestruck daughter as she interacted with her two suitors. Kingsbury’s interactions with Osero and d’Angelo Jones had everyone chuckling, especially when his gun was pointed at the young men. For me, Kingsbury’s performance in the second act, which starts at the Box Social, was my favorite of the entire play. Not only was there comedic moments, there was also a couple moments of empathy. 

Rounding out the principal cast was Miranda Robinson, who more recently portrayed an elementary school student in BHP’s “Putnam.” Even though I know she’s not actually 8 years old, she sold me on the idea of it so well, that I was actually somewhat surprised to see her portray an 18 year old (even though she may look old — “like 19” — according to Aunt Eller). It was really great to see her as Gertie Cummings, local farm girl who constantly flirts with Curly. While she wasn’t the primary villain of the show (that’s all creepy Jud), Gertie does have an air about her that really makes you dislike her. Robinson was great when she was swooping in to talk to Curly, as well as singing and dancing with the cast. And her laugh — oh my goodness, that laugh! Think of Janice from “Friends,” mixed with a hint of sea lion. Oddly specific, I know. 

Rounding out the ensemble was Trey Mendlik, Ryan Adolph, Austin Vetter, Lera Zamaraeva, Justis Drake, Madison Rimmer and Cole Kennedy. Whether they were adding their two cents to a topic, dancing (and dancing, and dancing) in a number or even exchanging a look, the six actors drew laughs. Especially when Zamaraeva nastily imitated Robinson’s laugh. Hysterical. 

“Oklahoma!” would be nothing with out the amazing work by music director Andrew Steinberg and choreographer Andrea Schaefer. The two go hand-in-hand and are required to be nearly perfect, since the musical is such a well-known production. 

The actors were all strong in their singing, thanks to Steinberg’s direction. There wasn’t a moment where I thought the music was drowning the actors out nor an instance when I thought an actor’s performance didn’t fit. Everything was so well matched, in sync and in harmony.

I also appreciate the use of a live piano and fiddle, played by Vonnie Houchin and Meghan Knowles, respectively. The BHP doesn’t typically have live music in any of their productions, so this added touch was an extra special quality that made “Oklahoma!” unique. The two played constantly throughout the show, never getting off beat or out of sync — an amazing feat in itself. Knowles also started off the second act with a solo, getting everyone in mood for the social. The bit (in addition to making me wish I had learned fiddle as a child) was the perfect mood setter for the second act. Be prepared to clap along!

Schaefer’s choreography was also astounding, especially considering there were so many dance numbers. I can’t recall a play at the BHP where there has been so much dancing. Each number was different and unique to its song, making everything flow so nicely. And Schaefer’s dedication to this production showed by her integration of both the waltz and two-step, the latter becoming a new way to dance in “those days.”

And just like the musical numbers, there were quite a few costumes. I loved the print and fabrics designer Caitlin Quinn chose to use. They were very reminiscent of something I picture men and women wearing while living and working on the prairie — light material and brighter colors to stay cool in the heat. And the costumes for the social — nicer, fancier dresses — were also beautiful, yet practical.

So if you haven’t figured by now, I highly recommend seeing the BHP’s production of “Oklahoma!” It’s a wonderfully original take on a classic favorite, perfect for musical enthusiasts, Western folk and the entire family. But just a warning, you will be singing the songs for days to come. Trust me. 

For more information or to buy tickets to “Oklahoma!” (running through July 29), visit blackhillsplayhouse.com. 

 

Updated to include Trey Mendlik’s, who was left out of our original publishing. Apologies for the error!