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Let’s face it. It’s hard to mess up Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” Even Meg Ryan, singing karaoke famously off-key in When Harry Met Sally, couldn’t do it.
So just imagine that song and all the rest in Oklahoma! with a full orchestra and a cast of music and dance students, staged against the backdrop of the magnificent Aycock Auditorium on the UNCG campus. Spectacular, indeed!
This evening of Oklahoma! was beyond grand. To watch new life being breathed into an old standard is always thrilling, and, in this case, the collaboration among the three schools made for thrilling times three.
Conductor William Carroll and director Bryan Conger (in his Master’s thesis production) gave audiences an evening of music, acting and dancing that certainly rivaled the best of the long stage history of Oklahoma!, the play that is said to have defined modern musical theatre.
It was a night of fresh faces, among them, the character of Curly, played by Matthew Delaney. Delaney gave us a Hugh Jackman-style (Jackman played Curly in London’s National Theatre 1998 production) Curley, with a smile that could break any prairie girl’s heart. His romantic counterpart, Laurey, was played by Diana Yodzis, whose operatic voice commanded. If these two actors seemed at first a bit mismatched, by the time they were betrothed, we were absolutely convinced they belonged together.
Our two lovers notwithstanding, it was Leah Turley as Aunt Eller who anchored this show. She looked, sounded and became the part of the beloved prairie woman, and her comedic timing was that of a professional. Claire Niver delighted the audience as Ado Annie, performing a bawdy balancing act between her two paramours, the devoted Will (Terrance Johnson) and the hilarious con man Ali Hakim (Chris Raddatz). When Niver sang her solo, “I’m Just a Girl who can’t Say No,” we absolutely believed her.
All the males gave solid performances, but it was perhaps David Goodshall as Judd Fry who best personified both the attractiveness and the menace of the Oklahoma Territory in the 1930s. The smokehouse scene between Judd and Curly was one of the highlights of the play. Delaney as Curly even displayed a few rope tricks, all in his effort to outdo Judd.
Angela Fuller, dancing original choreography by Agnes de Mille in the dream scene, seemed to barely touch the ground as Dream Laurey, and Elgin Giles as Dream Curly was an absolutely respectable partner for the gifted ballerina. The dream scene itself was mesmerizing, turning from a light, happy reverie to an ominous nightmare when Judd Fry appears. This dramatic change was accomplished with a scenery switch-up, accomplished seamlessly with lighting and backdrops.
The acts open with actors’ silhouettes, which emphasized the show’s tantalizing music and scenery. Margaret Toomey’s scenic design (also a Master’s thesis project) beautifully and subtly reflects the flat prairie landscape without overpowering the costumes and choreography.
Oklahoma! is perhaps the perfect show for a university production, and UNCG certainly proved that it is up to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s vision. An “A” for everyone!