Kayla Shimizu, who stars as Laurey in “Oklahoma!” and Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” at Waltham’s Reagle Music Theatre this summer, has one objective. “My goal is to de-ingenue them,” says the 29-year-old singer, dancer, and actor. “I want to make these characters quirky and independent and feisty. I think about Laurey as a Jo March [’Little Women’] kind of woman.”
Shimizu’s approach follows director and choreographer Rachel Bertone’s vision for her vivid and emotional revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, which, with a cast of 38 and a 19-piece orchestra, runs through Sunday. “Oklahoma!” tells the story of a land in transition at the turn of the 20th century, and the tensions that arise as individuals try to navigate change. The action focuses on Laurey, a young woman who is in love with the boastful cowboy Curly but whose kindness to a sullen farmhand named Jud makes him think she loves him.
“It’s an odd love triangle,” says Shimizu. “But I think Laurey feels compassion for Jud because she’s been lonely, too. She sees Curly as her equal and they’re comfortable teasing each other.”
Along the way, we are treated to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lush musical score, including the songs “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “All Er Nothin’,” and the title song. The richness of the score and Bertone’s all-new choreography — including a stunning “Dream Ballet” — provide the production with the urgency and relevance that make “Oklahoma!” appealing 80 years after its debut.
“These characters are complicated,” says Bertone, who is also Reagle’s artistic director. “They are not simply heroes and villains. They deserve to be taken seriously, even when they make some creepy choices.”
Bertone’s commitment to ensuring the three-dimensionality of these characters emerged from her eagerness to pay homage to the original team’s storytelling while making it accessible to modern-day audiences.
“Rodgers and Hammerstein never shied away from controversial material, and I don’t want to, either,” Bertone says. “It’s important we give the women in the story some agency, show Curly’s conflicted emotions, and avoid simply dismissing Laurey as a damsel in distress.”
Just as Laurey’s ambitions and passions come first, Shimizu says that same independent streak is central to Ariel, the mermaid who trades her voice for legs in “The Little Mermaid,” which runs at Reagle July 28-Aug. 6.
“I’m trying to tell the story through the lens of a young woman who wants to forge her own path and find her place in the world,” says Shimizu. “She’s not just giving up her voice for a man, she’s empowering herself and finding her own way in the world.”
Shimizu barely has time to take her final bow in “Oklahoma!” before starting rehearsals for “The Little Mermaid,” to be directed and choreographed by Taavon Gamble, who most recently choreographed “The Prom” at SpeakEasy Stage Company and performed in Trinity Repertory Company’s “Sweeney Todd.”
“We don’t usually cast the same actor in two leading roles,” says Bertone, “but both Taavon and I — as well as our music directors [Dan Rodriguez for ‘Oklahoma!’ and David Coleman for ‘Mermaid’] — were eager to cast Kayla. We knew she could do both because she stepped in at the last minute last summer to play Catherine in ‘Pippin.’ She learned the role during tech week and was outstanding. Stepping up to take on two leading roles is an opportunity to give her a well-deserved spotlight.”
Bertone says finding young talent ready for the spotlight and creating a summer season that brings generations together to enjoy theater is the core of Reagle’s mission.
“I had my first professional job at Reagle,” says Bertone, who succeeded theater founder Robert J. Eagle last year as artistic director. “I had the opportunity to work with and learn from some of the greats while being given the opportunity to challenge myself as a performer, choreographer, and director. I’m thrilled to be able to provide these opportunities to others while offering new takes on classics and contemporary musical theater.”
Wheelock leader moves on
Emily Ranii, who led Wheelock Family Theatre for five seasons, has announced her departure as its artistic director. During her tenure, she navigated the theater through the merger of Wheelock College with Boston University, dealt with the challenges of pandemic closures, and co-commissioned the musical adaptation of Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings.” Ranii is joining the faculty of the Cambridge School of Weston, where she will continue to be involved with arts education. A new artistic director for Wheelock Family Theatre has not yet been announced.
Theater companies mourn Dewey Dellay
Dewey Dellay, an imaginative sound designer who won numerous accolades for his compelling contributions to dozens of Boston-area productions, died this month from cancer. His illness did not stop him from creating evocative music and the sound design for Lyric Stage Company’s recent production of “Rooted.” In May, he and Abe Joyner-Meyers earned a 2023 Elliot Norton Award for their haunting sound design for Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “Seven Guitars.”
Courtney O’Connor, Lyric Stage artistic director, said in a statement: “At our first production meeting for ‘Rooted’ a few months ago, Dewey played a piece of music that he had written for the play. As soon as it was finished, I think we all knew that Dewey had, once again, found the heartbeat. How thankful we all are to have heard his.”
In a Facebook post, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company recalled Dellay’s “warmth, sweet spirit, and immense creative talent.” Dellay, a longtime collaborator with the theater, had been scheduled to work on CSC’s free outdoor production of “Macbeth” this summer. “We hold his family and theatre family in our thoughts as they go through this difficult time — the world is much quieter without him in it,” the company said in its post.
“Oklahoma!” (through July 2) and “The Little Mermaid” (July 28-Aug. 6). At Reagle Music Theatre, Waltham. $30-$73. 781-891-5600, www.reaglemusictheatre.org