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A Broadway-ready revival of ‘Oklahoma!’ on stage at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” opened on Broadway in 1943, as World War II was raging in Europe and the Pacific. And if you watch this game-changing musical with that historical context in mind — and director Jim Corti’s glorious, grand-scale, effortlessly modern revival at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre is a must-see production — you will realize this show was as essential to the war effort as any victory garden or war bond drive.

That is certainly not to say it is a sugary, patriotic piece of Americana. Quite the opposite. As in all Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, there is conflict (moral, cultural, romantic), there is a look at the darker side of human nature, and there is plenty of questioning about matters of justice, violence and freedom. Yet at the same time there is a spirit of hope and optimism at work — of carrying on in the face of setbacks, facing individual imperfections and ultimately celebrating the gritty fabric of this country.

The cast of director Jim Corti’s revival of “Oklahoma!” at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre. (Photo: Liz Lauren)
The cast of director Jim Corti’s revival of “Oklahoma!” at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

The truth of all this hits you from the start as the golden voice of Colte Julian — the truly starry actor who plays Curly, the handsome cowboy in Paramount’s production — comes sweeping in from offstage. As he moves down one long aisle of the theater, singing what might well be the most thrilling, dreamily conversational take on “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” in the musical’s seven-decade history, it becomes instantly clear that there is something special going on here.

‘OKLAHOMA!’

Highly recommended

When: Through Oct. 18

Where: Paramount Theatre,

23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora

Tickets: $41 – $56

Info: (630) 896-6666;

www.Paramount

Aurora.com

Run time: 2 hours and

25 minutes with one intermission

That opening is just the first of Corti’s many innovations — an inspired piece of staging, and one that instantly infuses the show with a sense of space and surprise. It is fully complemented by the lush sound of the 18-piece orchestra led by music director Tom Vendafreddo, the stunning set by Scott Davis (with its skewed house frame and radiant yellow lace-patterned sky lit by Greg Hofmann) and costumes by Theresa Ham that might just result in the return of chaps. Plus there is the presence of two other crucial characters: Laurey (the tall, emotionally fraught Allison Sill), the object of Curly’s affections, and Aunt Eller (the absolutely sensational and sexy Caron Buinis).

Both feminine but full of sharp-edged, independent spirit, Laurey and Aunt Eller represent different generations of pioneering women. And their portrayals here are exceptionally fresh and complex, with Laurey seen as fiery but somewhat terrified of sex, and Aunt Eller a woman of a certain age who has seen it all, still full of an appetite for life.

Colte Julian plays Curly and Caron Buinis is Aunt Eller in “Oklahoma!,” at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. (Photo: Liz Lauren)
Colte Julian plays Curly and Caron Buinis is Aunt Eller in “Oklahoma!,” at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Of course the relationship between Curly and Laurey is anything but easy, with the presence of a “competitor” in the form of the lonely, angry farmhand Jud Fry (Peter Saide, tall and scruffy, but more handsome than the usual casting choice), who hovers throughout. His presence triggers Laurey’s high-anxiety entrapment nightmare at the end of the first act (choreographer Katie Spelman’s reimagining of Agnes DeMille’s “Out of My Dreams” ballet is completely brilliant), and it is central to the deeply troubling second-act scene with its upended wedding and crude frontier justice.

To be sure there is plenty of comic relief in the show, too, by way of immensely engaging performances by the dim-brained, rope-spinning cowboy Will Parker (Carl Draper), his boundlessly free-to-be-me girlfriend Ado Annie (Lillie Cummings), and Annie’s side interest, Ali Hakim (Kareem Bandealy), the Persian traveling salesman with a compulsion to kiss and run.

The clarion voices of both soloists and ensemble are exceptional, with every lyric crystal clear. And Spelman’s character-defining choreography for the rowdy cowboys and strong (rather than cute) girls, plus her square dance and reel variations, are prize-worthy.

Carl Draper (center) plays Will Parker in the Paramount Theatre revival of “Oklahoma!” (Photo: Liz Lauren)
Carl Draper (center) plays Will Parker in the Paramount Theatre revival of “Oklahoma!” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Watching this “Oklahoma!” you easily understand why the Paramount garnered 16 Jeff Award nominations for last season’s shows, and why in just a few years of existence its Broadway Musical Series has attracted 30,000 subscribers. It is now time for some heavyweight Broadway producers to fly into “the territory” and think about airlifting one of these shows onto a New York stage with this cast completely intact. It’s about time for an “Oklahoma!” revival. Let’s hope they “cain’t say no.”

Allison Sill (center) is Laurey, seen here during the “Out of My Dreams” ballet choreographed by Katie Spelman for the Paramount Theatre production of “Oklahoma!” (Photo: Liz Lauren)
Allison Sill (center) is Laurey, seen here during the “Out of My Dreams” ballet choreographed by Katie Spelman for the Paramount Theatre production of “Oklahoma!” (Photo: Liz Lauren)