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Review: Zilker Theatre Production’s “Oklahoma!”

Staff Writer
Austin 360

The smell of BBQ mingles with popcorn and bug spray on the Zilker Park hillside in summer. Families sprawl across a rainbow of blankets as children and dogs explore the sights and smells of the pre-show dusk.

For its 56th annual summer musical, Zilker Theatre Productions brings us Rogers and Hammerstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, “Oklahoma,” playing now through August 16th.

With such a long run of free, professional musical theater, attending the Zilker summer musical has become a tradition for many families in Austin. Arriving hours in advance to claim blanket space, spectators reminisce about previous summer shows, share food and drinks, play cards, and turn the evening into a convivial family adventure.

We watch as the spotlight operators don their safety harnesses and climb the lighting towers, ready to keep the performers well lit as the sun sets on the horizon. And everyone is good-natured about the inevitable audio difficulties.

As the show starts and Curly (David Barnes), the charming romantic lead, strolls onstage from across the picturesque hillside, you can hear people humming or softly singing along with the classic, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin.”

The audience hoots when Curly’s love interest, Laurey (Sarah Howard), comes onstage and instead of twittering and fawning, gives the confident cowboy a hefty dose of attitude. Their love story is charming for its slight idiosyncrasy – two people too prideful to admit they care, causing trouble by trying to make each other jealous.

“Oklahoma” features an enormous cast, with more than 30 performers gracing the stage, and Paul Davis has designed an epic, abstractly agricultural set to accompany the tale of 1906 rural life.

While the show starts a bit slow, things pick up with the entrance of calf roper, Will Parker (J Quinton Johnson) and his lively description of “Kansas City.” Johnson also brings to the stage some truly impressive rope tricks that make him all the more endearing. As a result, we’re really rooting for his romance with the adorable and fickle Ado Annie (Molly McCaskill) who, unfortunately for Parker, likes best whichever beaux she’s with at the moment.

Aside from the lovely dream sequence that closes out the first act and features Austin Ballet company members Ian J. Bethany and Grace Morton, Courtney Wessinger’s choreography is, to be honest, somewhat disappointing. Performers tend to stay in one place while singing, so the movement tends to feel forced and fitful, and the energy wavers.

Nevertheless, Zilker Theatre Productions always offers a fun evening out for any fan of musical theater.

“Oklahoma!” continues 8:30 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through Aug. 16. Free. www.zilker.org