Oh, What a Beautiful Production: Encore Theatre gives "Oklahoma" a magical infusion of youth


Encore Theatre's production of Oklahoma.

Photo by Michele Anliker Photography.

The Encore Theatre’s artistic director and co-founder Daniel Cooney takes the helm of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s game-changing and beloved musical Oklahoma and has given it a youth infusion.

Just down the road from Dexter is the University of Michigan’s School of Music and Theatre with some of the most talented young performers anywhere, many of them bound for Broadway and Hollywood. The Encore has a group of excellent actors who perform at the highest level. Put them together and the result is magical.

From the moment a swaggering Curly greets Aunt Eller with the rousing declaration, "Oh, what beautiful morning, oh, what a beautiful day" we get the idea that we will be given a jolt of boundless energy. The electricity never flags.

Oklahoma opened on Broadway in 1943. It was the first of an unprecedented run of hit musicals. Rodgers' music and Hammerstein’s book and lyrics dominated Broadway for the next 20 years. Hammerstein stepped in to write the book and lyrics after Rodger’s long-time lyricist, the brilliant but troubled Lorenz Hart, declined to participate and suggested Hammerstein as a replacement. 

Hammerstein saw the possibilities in turning the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs into a musical. It was a celebration of youth and love, and it had room for comedy and a dark side. Several years before Oklahoma, Hammerstein had collaborated with composer Jerome Kern to create a musical of Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat. It also had humor, a strong story, a dark side, and great songs, notably “Old Man River."

Encore Theatre's production of Oklahoma.

Photo by Michele Anliker Photography.

Oklahoma is the story of a territory on the verge of statehood. It’s a place where ranchers and farmers are feuding over who should control the land. (Oil is still in the future.) Curly is a cowboy, an exuberant, dynamic young man shyly in love with the smart and beautiful Laurey, who lives with her Aunt Eller. She’s attracted to him but pretends to be interested in her aunt’s troubled and sad farm hand Jud Fry, to draw Curly’s attention.

The play also follows the funny side of love. Curly’s friend Will Parker is a likable goof in love with the recently aroused Ado Annie, who is also attracted to a “Persian” peddler who calls himself Ali Hakim.

Jason Mulay Koch plays Curly. Koch has a big, clear singing voice. His opening “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” displays his voice and his ability to charm. He is funny and giddy on “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” shyly romantic on “People Will Say We’re In Love,” and demonstratively rousing on the title song “Oklahoma.” But Curly is also complicated. His desire and concern for Laurey takes a dark side in his first confrontation with Jud Fry. Koch is both a fine singer and a versatile and nuanced actor. He fully embodies the character of Curly. 

Encore Theatre's production of Oklahoma.

Photo by Michele Anliker Photography.

Aurora Penepacker plays Laurey who in this production is not one to wait around for a man to take care of her. Penepacker gives strong voice to “Many a New Day” and a winsome suggestion of what love can be in “People Will Say We’re In Love.” She also handles the rebuke of Jud, moving from fear to taking direct action against him in this version. She makes a charming but also forceful Laurey.

Julia Glander is an excellent Aunt Eller. She’s down-home, funny, giddy, and a wise counselor. Glander captures both the humor and the wisdom. In many ways, she’s the anchor for the show.

Anderson Zoll is a wonderfully goofy Will Parker. He returns from the big city to give everyone the news that everything is up to date in Kansas City and that they’ve just gone as far as they can go. He sings “Kansas City” with a huge grin and excellent enunciation. Not only that, he’s a first-rate dancer, whether it’s a two-step or a tap dance. He plays a yokel and gets some of the biggest laughs of the show.

Maddie Dick plays the recently self-liberated Ado Annie, the girl who “cain’t say no.” Dick gives a fine performance on “I Cain’t Say No” and makes Annie both appealing and clueless.

Encore veteran David Moan plays Jud Fry, a troubled, lonely man. The character and his world are a sharp dark turn in a mostly upbeat show. But Moan gives a strong performance, especially on his brief self-defense in the song “Lonely Room."

Encore Theatre's production of Oklahoma.

Photo by Michele Anliker Photography.

Dance is a big part of Oklahoma, from hoedown stomping to tap dancing to fluid movements across the stage. The show features a ballet, originally choreographed by Agnes de Mille, that shows Laurey’s troubled dreams. Amy West is the choreographer who has done an excellent job of staging these dance sequences involving a large cast on a relatively small stage and the result is flawless, smooth, and stomping.

Also on stage throughout is the orchestra under the excellent direction of R. Mackenzie Lewis. The orchestra and the singers are in top form. 

Daniel Cooney brings it all together. Oklahoma changed the idea of what a Broadway show could be about. Cooney’s production is a reminder that Rodgers & Hammerstein on a marquee will never grow old if young performers continue to bring out the best of those great musicals.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s "Oklahoma" continues through June 30 at The Encore Theatre, 7714 Ann Arbor Street, Dexter. For tickets and information, call 734-268-6200 or visit theencoretheatre.org.