Chicago Theatre Review
Everything’s Up to Date
Oklahoma – Paramount Arts Center
To avid theatre goers, there’s nothing quite so thrilling as hearing a beautiful, carefully-crafted piece of music being played to perfection by a full orchestra. Hearing those first strains of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s lush overture reminds audiences of what they’ve missed in lesser productions of this show. It’s as if we’ve taken a trip back to 1943 when this groundbreaking classic of the musical stage first opened on Broadway, and oh, what a beautiful moment, that must’ve been.
Jim Corti, however, breathes new life into a play that’s credited with reinventing the modern musical. In Corti’s skilled hands, the Paramount’s production both looks and sounds as if it were brand new while still carefully recreating the magic that audiences experienced 70 years ago when the American musical was born. In his presentation, “Everything’s Up to Date,” and in more places than just “Kansas City.”
When Richard Rodgers first teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein III to musicalize Lynn Riggs’ dramatic homage to his home state, the result was a better-crafted play featuring a score of gorgeous, memorable songs that were not only entertaining but actually furthered the plot. Until this time, musicals were more like burlesque and vaudeville: light entertainments, filled with big song-and-dance production numbers and cheap jokes. “Oklahoma” centered around two pairs of young lovers whose stories are told against the background of a territory’s impending statehood. Plenty of comedy prevailed, but there was also drama that evoked real emotional response. The songs became musical extensions of the play’s dialogue (“People Will Say We’re in Love,” “All or Nothin’”) or provided melodic monologues (“Out of My Dreams,” “Lonely Room”) for a character. Even the show’s choreography, especially Agnes De Mille’s famous “Dream Ballet,” contributed to the story instead of merely showcasing a performer’s talents.
Mr. Corti’s production is peopled by a huge cast who are able to act, sing and dance this score the way it was written. To achieve such musical, dramatic and choreographic perfection, Mr. Corti is ably assisted by Musical Director Tom Vendafreddo (who also conducts a superb 18-piece pit orchestra) and Choreographer Katie Spelman, whose choreography is a salute to Agnes de Mille’s original, groundbreaking dances but, at the same time, very fresh and original. Unlike many other productions, Mr. Corti’s talented actors seem closer in age to the characters they play.
His cast is made up of some of Chicago’s finest triple threats. Lovely Allison Sill absolutely sparkles as Laurie. Her musical precision paired with perfect diction spells star quality. But Ms. Sills isn’t your typical, easily intimidated little Laurie, either; she’s a sassy, feisty frontier woman who’s not going to take crap from anyone. When she lashes out at Curly and, particularly, when she vehemently puts Jud in his place, there’s no denying the strength of this
young woman. Allison is superbly matched note for note, scene for scene by dashing Colte Julian as Curly, whose glorious voice opens the show with his “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin.’” Sill and Julian team up perfectly with “People Will Say We’re in Love,” while Mr. Julian’s splendid voice soars in such numbers as “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” and “Pore Jud is Daid” and, backed by the entire ensemble, the rousing title song. And as Jud Fry, virile and robust Peter Saide is strong and foreboding, an unseen threat even when offstage. His rich baritone evokes so many images in his musical soliloquy, “Lonely Room.” However, Mr. Saide is particularly frightening during his portion of Act I’s “Out of My Dreams” ballet.
One of Chicago’s finest musical performers, lovely Lillie Cummings is part ingenue, part character actress as Ado Annie. She makes such great use of her expressive face, her finely honed comic delivery and timing and some smooth vocals in songs like “I Cain’t Say No” and “All Er Nothin’” sung with comic romantic partner Carl Draper, as Will Parker. Mr. Draper is not only handsome and a superb singer, but the young man’s a dancing fool, showing everyone up in “Kansas City” and “The Farmer and the Cowhand.” Kareem Bandealy, who has appeared on just about every stage in Chicago, proves a standout as the comically conniving Persian peddler, Ali Hakim. And beautiful Caron Buinis is an Aunt Eller, like no other. Instead of an aging widow enjoying her last years of running her farm, Ms. Buinis is a vitally alive woman, hauling around a saddle, as interested in the Little Wonder’s dirty pictures as the guys and able to teach the cowhands and farmers some manners with her special brand of tough love. It’s not difficult to see where Laurie gets her spunk.
The ensemble, who sing and dance their way throughout the two-and-a half hour production consists of all ages and forms a true community, the seeds of a new state germinating before our eyes. Don Forston’s excellent Andrew Carnes, Don Richard’s nicely nuanced Cord Elam and Larry Baldacci’s strong-minded Ike Skidmore create the backbone of this village.
Katie Spelman’s exciting, inventive choreography honors Agnes De Mille’s cutting edge choreography while creating her own, unique dances, such as the joyous “Kansas City,” the whimsical “Many a New Day” and the 15-minute-long
Scott Davis’ beautiful, fragmented sets, with its hills, valleys and never-ending sky, framed by a false proscenium of classic columns and larger-than-life lace is richly lit by Greg Hofmann’s palette of earth tones. All of this is matched by Theresa Ham’s multitude of colorful, yet realistic period costumes and Katie Cordts’ finely-researched wig, hair and makeup designs.
There are many reasons not to miss this wonderful production. Here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear Tom Vendafreddo’s unmatched orchestra accompanying Jim Corti’s talented, 22-member cast performing Rodgers & Hammerstein’s glorious score the way it was originally intended. This sharp, intelligent production, which has the same raw energy as the adolescent territory is depicts, is over 70 years old. Yet despite several award-winning revivals, multiple national tours, a myriad of international productions and a classic film version, the Paramount’s production feels fresh and new, contemporary and groundbreaking all over again. Everything is truly up-to-date in Kansas City.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 16-October 18 by Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 630-896-6666 or by going to www.ParamountAurora.com.
Additional information about this and other productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.