Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Oklahoma!"

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note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi

"OKLAHOMA!"

book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; music by Richard Rodgers

based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs; original dances by Agnes de Mille

directed by Jennifer Condon; choreographed by Patricia Strauss
musical direction by Paul Huberdeau

Aunt Eller … Tracy Nygard
Curly … Zachary Hardy / Louis Lourens*
Laurey … Aimee Doherty / Kaja Schuppert*
Ike Skidmore … Rick Copeland
Fred … Doug Gerber
Slim … Joseph Cullinane
Will Parker … Rob Klimeczko / Michael Parsons*
Jud Fry … James Tallach / Christpher Hawkins*
Ado Annie Carnes … Melissa Sousa / Carrie Van Meter*
Ali Hakim … Jim Jordan / Ray O’Hare*
Gertie Cummings … Carrie Van Meter / Jessica Schulman*
Ellen … Lilly Bayrock
Kate … Jennifer O’Brien
Virginia … Nina Brosnan
Vivian … Tracy Nygard
Bradyne … Jessica Shulman
Sylvie … Eleni Kmiec
Amina … Dena Landon
Aggie … Jessica Piehl
Emily … Jennifer Markham
Mike … Jason Gaffney
Tom … Will Morningstar
Andrew Carnes … Chuck Walsh / Mike Ryan*
Cord Elam … Mike Ryan / Rick Copeland*
Dream Laurey … Sara Knight
* Actors playing these roles on the night I attended
Ballet:

Saloon Girls: Dena Landon, Jessica Piehl, Carrie Van Meter
Bridesmaids … Lily Bayrock, Nina Brosnan, Eleni Kmiec, Jennifer Markhan
Cowboys: Rick Copeland, Joseph Cullinane, Jason Gaffney, Douglas Gerber

Conduct/Keyboard … Paul Huberdeau
Keyboards … Connie Reisdorf, Colleen Henry
Percussion … Steve Jounakos
Bass … David Weisman, Rob Orr, Corey DiMario

Relentlessly aggressive, over-the-top, anthem-heavy musicals are the norm these days; so much so that a return to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA! may require some audience readjustment: the show’s tone is sunny, friendly and lacking in special effects; the setting is as static as a photograph; the plot revolves around who gets to take the leading lady to the hoe-down; and the songs --- most of them, standards --- are catchy and cute. One might ask, “How could this little show (1943) have been the first Modern American Musical?” (That title belongs to Kern-Hammerstein’s SHOWBOAT, back in 1927.) To answer that question, OKLAHOMA! must be seen in context: up until then, American musicals were built around star performers, hit tunes, razzle-dazzle, and the flimsiest of librettos. OKLAHOMA! broke the mould with its emphasis on character and plot (which in turn required a new kind of actor/singer), its songs resulting from its situations and Agnes de Mille’s dance numbers (especially the show’s dream ballet) actually progressing the story. In olden days, the show would have opened with “Oklahoma!”; instead, Aunt Eller churning butter in her yard signaled a new dawn in the American theatre (and the timing couldn’t have been better --- the middle of World War II, when OKLAHOMA! uplifted Americans with its decency and optimism). Other composers/librettists improved upon this New Musical formula (Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves made vast strides with their next show, CAROUSEL), and it is easy nowadays to delegate OKLAHOMA! to summer stock and community theatres. Granted, it was a gentle earthquake in its day, but it was still an earthquake.

To borrow a phrase from The Footlight Club, the Turtle Lane production is amateur, but not amateurish --- it may go “clunk” now and then but that in turn makes its delights all the sweeter: a comedy scene that is actually funny; a dance number that rightly deserves to be applauded, etc. Director Jennifer Condon and choreographer Patricia Strauss keep things simple which compliments the sincere, artless playing of their cast; unlike the “dark” OKLAHOMA! which recently appeared on Broadway, Ms. Condon’s only interpretive touch is to have Laurey wear overalls in Act One; otherwise, Americana rules right down to the last slat on Aunt Eller’s picket fence. Ms. Condon employs two sets of leading characters: on the night I attended, Ray O’Hare was a master of shtick as the peddler Ali Hakim, and Carrie Van Meter’s ding-dongy Ado Annie threatened to become indelible. Louis Lourens’ Curly was indeed “as pretty as a picture”; his sweet, shy flatness eventually merged into the sweet, shy flatness of his cowpoke.

The show’s centerpiece was Kaja Schuppert’s Laurey. I first saw Ms. Schuppert recently in Vokes Theatre’s excellent production of TINTYPES; her voice --- well suited for operetta --- made her a memorable, continental Anna Held (she would also make an enchanting Little Mary Sunshine ­ HINT!). For Laurey, Ms. Schuppert pared down her sophistication to create a creditable, likeable prairie girl, blended with enough radiant smiles to light up a cornfield; no wonder Curly and Judd fought over her throughout the evening. Though she can deliver the necessary razzmatazz, Ms. Schuppert's smaller actions are what linger in the memory: imitating a rival’s affected giggle or flinching and folding up when Jud Fry tries to kiss her. Happily, there are enough old-fashioned musicals around so Ms. Schuppert may never need to belt an anthem --- what goes around, comes around; should NEW old-fashioned musicals become the norm (and they seem to be, slowly but surely), Ms. Schuppert will be there to sing them. She is definitely a star in the making.


"Oklahoma!" (11 July - 17 August)
TURTLE LANE PLAYHOUSE
283 Melrose Street, NEWTON, MA
1 (617) 244-0169


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