Mercer University Opera’s three-day production of the musical “Oklahoma!” opened at the Grand Opera House in Macon, Georgia on Thursday, Jan. 21 and closed Saturday, Jan. 23. The student production was well received by local theatergoers and was a highlight of the weekend.
“Oklahoma!” debuted at the St. James Theatre in New York on March 31, 1943. The Broadway smash was the first musical written by the legendary duo Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and would run for a total of 2,212 performances spanning over 15 years.
Taking place in the Oklahoma Territory in 1906, the play is a love story between the headstrong Laurey Williams and the bowlegged cowboy Curly McLain. There is a secondary love plot between the boyish bronc-busting Will Parker and his flirtatious fiancée Ado Annie.
Opening night at the Grand was performed in front of an intimate but eager audience. By the time the show closed on Saturday, the cast performed in front of a full house.
Under the direction of Martha Malone and the musical direction of Dr. Richard Kosowski, the production maintained the iconic spirit of “Oklahoma!”
The musical was subtle, capturing the essence of times past with the same grandeur of its Broadway counterparts – and Mercer nailed it.
With students performing well-known numbers like “Kansas City” and “The Farmer and the Cowman,” expectations were not lost. It was noticeable that not all of the students were trained dancers, but this was expected and forgivable.
Choreographer Joy Mote did an exceptional job with the show’s large dance numbers, especially with her adaptation of the “Dream Ballet.”
The Mercer production was very well cast — Malone and Kosowski’s choices for the show’s principal characters made perfect sense.
Senior Clay Mote took on the role of Curly McLain in a very believable performance. Mote’s subtle acting moments during each song were impeccable.
Laurey Williams was performed by junior Mary Lathem, who also edits the Arts & Lifestyle section of The Cluster. Her performance truly captured the spirit of Laurey’s unrefined beauty. Lathem brought a youthful charm to the character, which is not often seen in interpretations of the role.
Will Parker was played by sophomore Minnesota native Peter Schultz, and the tenacious Ado Annie was played by graduate student Kelsey Tinsman. Both performances were true to their roles and created memorable moments. Laughter from the audience was a near constant when they were on stage.
The comical Ali Hakim was played by senior McKinley Starks in a silly and often ridiculous performance. Starks had great comedic timing and created a wonderful atmosphere for audience members and his fellow actors alike.
Some scenes during the show, especially during opening night, teeter-tottered between actors rushing through their lines or not acting authentically. This smoothed over during the course of the run and did not take away from the enjoyment of the show.
Additionally, some of the actors on stage were not always consistent in their dialects. However, this was again forgivable and could be overlooked.
By far the most notable performances were by graduate students Beau Palmer as Jud Fry and Ruby Stillions as Aunt Eller. Palmer’s acting was haunting, and his many years as a professional vocalist created shining moments in his solo scenes. Stillions embodied the essence of Aunt Eller, who in many ways is the plotline’s anchor. Stillions’ acting was sound and came from an authentic place.
Mercer University Opera’s rendition of “Oklahoma!” began production in September and ended the program’s five-year absence from the Grand Opera House.