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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Elyse Sommer
Hammerstein's libretto transformed Lynn Riggs' not very successful 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs, into a groundbreaking musical that ran for a record-setting 2,212 performances at the St. James Theater — disproving much quoted estimate of it's future —"No legs, no jokes, no chance! (The source of the variously attributed quote was gossip columnist Walter Winchell's right-hand woman).
The Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration continued to seed hit musicals with enduring stick--to-the-ears tunes and strong stories (Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific,The Sound of Music, Cinderella ). And Oklahoma! the granddaddy of them all lives on. It won a slew of awards, including a Pulitzer, made tons of money during an extended tour, gained ever bigger audiences with a popular movie version, several high profile revivals and thousands of high school productions.
But despite its stature as a classic that moved the musical genre on a new path, for a revival of Oklahoma! to be more than theatrical comfort food, it needs a fresh, brisk directorial vision and a really dynamic cast to deliver the popular hummers and avoid the sense of visiting a museum piece.
Eric Hill, who has proved his ability to bring his own unique vision to many Berkshire Theatre Group's productions, has unfortunately opted for a safe, slightly trimmed Oklahoma! The gorgeously restored Colonial Theater seems to call for more of modern stagecraft's bells and whistles than this adequately functional but not particularly innovative staging. Yet, grand and elegant as the venue is, it's small enough to call for less amplification.
The cast is energetic. The songs are still melodic and in case of the final title ensemble number, rousing. But only a few of the performers are outstanding on all counts, as singers, actors and dancers.
Diane Phelan brings a splendid soprano voice but a charmless persona to Laurey, the romantic lead. Jarid Faubel, as Curly, also sings well but he lacks that special something to make him more than a run-of-the-mill leading man. As for the chemistry between Laurey and Curly, for the most part, it seems to have gone missing.
As for the play's villain, he's always been more interesting than the battling and rather silly lovers, but it took British director Trevor Nun's intensifying of Jud Fry's darkness to give Oklahoma! the something fresh and new it needs after all these years. Austin Durant's Jud certainly is not someone any girl would be eager to have as her picnic date. However, he somehow lacks the intense menace both in terms of his obsessive passion for Laurey and hostility towards Curly that made Shuler Hensley's Jud so memorable. The odd curtained-off staging of the roundhouse scene between Curly and Jud with the wonderful "Poor Jud is Daid" number doesn't help to invest that confrontation with the needed ominous sense of things to come.
In fairness to Durant, his character is not taken over by a dancer in the production's highlight, the "Dream Ballet." (Jennifer Jong and Aaron Lloyd Pomeroy step in to inhabit the Laurey and Curly roles). What's more, Durant is quite effective in Gerry McIntyre's original but true to DeMille's choreography. The other principal dance numbers, like "Kansas City," are full of athletic agility but not especially artful.
As noted by Director Hill in a pre-opening interview, the color-blind casting is apt given the diversity of the Oklahoma territory at the time during which the story takes place. It's not really a first for this production though I can't recall seeing an African-American Ado Annie. Chasten Harmon's Annie is a charmer though she's more endearing at the beginning than later when she tends to be a bit too shrill. If I had to pick out the all-around standout, it would be Annie's romantic opposite, Will Parker as acted, sung and danced by Matt Gibson.
Bravos are also in order for Walter Hudson as Ado Annie's father and Christopher Gurr as the peddler Ali Hakim to whom Ado Annie can't or doesn't want to "say no." While David Murin's costumes for the entire cast are colorful and true to the period, he's outdone himself with the flashy plaid suit for Ali Hakim. The one puzzlement pertains to the high heeled boots for Kristine Zbornik's Aunt Eller who besides wearing shoes so unsuited to a farm woman, this time around is first seen smoking a pipe instead of churning butter.
The sophisticated musicals we've become accustomed to in recent years have made the corn-fed story more lightweight than ever. So, perhaps anything other than an all-star really newly conceived Oklahoma! is likely to disappoint. Here's hoping that the Berkshire Theater Group will opt to be a little more derring-do in their choice of their annual big show for this beautiful venue.