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I suspect most theater critics would never admit this, but the musical “Oklahoma!” holds a special place in my heart.
Sure, by today’s standards, the plot seems to hold little relevance to modern-day life in the fast-paced 21st century. (Dancing cowboys and box socials? No way!) But in 1943, “Oklahoma!” launched the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and the American musical theater was never the same. (The string of memorable, hummable tunes from this show – even 60-plus years later – attests to that.)
Plus, it was the second musical I ever saw – and more than 40 years later, I still can’t get that slick high-school production out of my head. The same can be said about the kick-ass finale from last night’s performance at The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter. (It’s still floating in and out of my mind more than 15 hours later – and probably will continue to do so for many hours more!)
In those last few minutes, all of the hard work by director/choreographer Barbara F. Cullen and her eager, energetic cast came together and paid off with a rousing finale that had many in the initial Friday night audience smiling, clapping and singing along. (To say they loved it – especially the more senior members of the capacity crowd – would be an understatement!)
But there were a few bumps along the dusty trail getting to that point.
Unique among Southeast Michigan’s professional theaters, The Encore blends Broadway veterans and local Equity actors with a broad range of amateur thespians from local schools and community theaters. Although that’s a great way for up-and-coming artists to gain experience in a professional environment, the onstage result is often an uneven mix of talent and skill.
That was readily apparent last night, mostly in the areas of character development and vocal projection.
Whereas the established pros all created fully realized and believable characters, a few others gave performances that were simply “too large,” which caused them to stand out for all the wrong reasons. Another struggled with her dialogue, and popped in and out of her character throughout the performance.
Meanwhile, some of the younger ensemble members could barely be heard from the fourth row – whether singing or speaking.
But what most people remember about musicals isn’t the acting, but the singing and dancing – and that’s where this production of “Oklahoma!” shines. Cullen’s choreography is superb, and her cast – always smiling, always enjoying themselves – executes it flawlessly (which is especially laudable, since most choreographers would never attempt to move 19 people around such a small stage). And their voices are all perfectly suited to the score.
Notable performers include 2009 Wilde Awards nominee Rusty Mewha (Curly), who was born to play the cowboy who gives up his lifestyle for the woman he loves; Liz Griffith as the love of his life, Laurey; Sebastian Gerstner as Will Parker; Sarah Litzsinger, whose puckish Ado Annie is simply delightful; Gavriel Savit, whose amazingly deep voice helps shade the much-feared Jud Fry with multiple layers of humanity; and Steve DeBruyne, who joined the cast as traveling salesman Ali Hakim only a week or so before opening and gives a dynamite performance from start to finish.
Costumes by Colleen Meyer are picture perfect – albeit a little too new and clean for struggling cowboys and farmers.
: The Encore Musical Theatre, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Thursday-Sunday through Aug. 23. $28. 734-268-6200. http://www.theencoretheatre.org