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Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
September 12, 2018

Blake Price, Sarah Ellis, Zoe Vonder Haar
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

Oklahoma! is a classic musical. In fact, it’s often thought of as the one that really made “musical theatre” a thing, at least in its modern sense. It’s 75 years old this year, and to celebrate its anniversary, many theatre companies across the country are producing the show. Here in St. Louis, it’s on at STAGES to close out their 2018 season, and the production is all that could be hoped for in a staging of this show. It’s a tradititional staging, for the most part, but being on a smaller scale than most productions of this show I’ve seen, it brings an immediacy and clarity to the relationships that is refreshing, and the casting is about as ideal as I could imagine, especially in the two lead roles.

The story is well-known to essentially anyone who knows the history of musical theatre. Set in the Oklahoma territory at the turn of the 20th Century, it follows a collection of characters and their lives and loves as the world is in the midst of an era of change, both technological and social. The cowboy Curly (Blake Price) is sweet on Laurey (Sarah Ellis), and she’s sweet on him, but they’re both awkward about admitting that. Laurey, who lives on a farm with her Aunt Eller (Zoe Vonder Haar), also has another admirer–mysterious, somewhat menacing farmhand Jud Fry (David Sajewich), but Laurey accepts Jud’s invitation to a town social event to spite Curly, even though she soon regrets her decision. Meanwhile, Laurey’s romantically adventurous friend Ado Annie (Lucy Moon) has her own dilemma–having to choose between her cowboy sweetheart Will Parker (Con O’Shea Creal), who wants to marry Annie, and traveling peddler Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano), who is being pressured by Annie’s father (John Flack) to marry her. Some of the situations are awkwardly stereotypical by today’s standards, but for the most part it’s an entertaining representation of a bygone era both in terms of history and musical theatre, although the casting especially for Curly and Laurey has brought out a sense of timeless immediacy to the story that I haven’t seen as much before.

I’ve seen this show several times before, and I’ve never seen a Curly and Laurey with better chemistry than Price and and Ellis in this production. Every time they are one stage together, it’s electric, and every scene they have together is believable, crackling with emotional energy and attraction, bringing real magic to moments like “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top” and “People Will Say We’re In Love”. Price is an affable, charming Curly and Ellis is a somewhat more deadpan sarcastic Laurey than I’ve seen before, and her more reflective moments are credible as well. In fact, the dream ballet, with Ellis dancing herself opposite a “Dream Curly” (Nicolas De La Vega) puts the focus on Laurey even more so than other dream ballets I’ve seen. It’s an especially memorable, expertly danced moment. The always excellent Vonder Haar is impressive here as the devoted, spunky Aunt Ellerl, and Moon, O’Shea, and Curiano give strong comic performances in their roles as well. Sajewich is an appropriately broody and menacing Jud, and there’s also an excellent, energetic singing and dancing ensemble to back up the leads, with some impressive choreography by Dana Lewis on big, memorable production numbers like “Kansas City”, “The Farmer and the Cowman” and the title song.

Visually, this production is simply stunning, with a set by James Wolk that brings the Oklahoma prairies to vibrant life on stage, with some truly impressive dimensional scene painting and striking, stylish lighting by Sean M. Savoie. There are also colorful period costumes by Brad Musgrove that serve to celebrate both the era in which the show takes place and the 1940s costume design of the orginal Broadway production. It’s a great looking show, in keeping with classic and timeless style.

This is, simply stated, a fantastic Oklahoma! I especially like the particular focus on Curly and Laurey here, since other productions I’ve seen seem to have them overshadowed by the comic subplot. Even though the comic plots are well-done, the real stars here are Price and Ellis, and their love story makes more sense with these two than it ever has before, at least in productions I’ve seen. It’s a remarkable, vibrant production, appropriate for a 75th anniversary of an important classic musical. Go see it. It’s a whole lot more than just “OK”.

Con O’Shea-Creal, Lucy Moon
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProfPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Oklahoma! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 7, 2018.

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Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreography by Susan Stroman, Restaged by Ginger Thatcher
The Muny
August 10 , 2015

Christine Cornish Smith, Ben Davis Photo: The Muny

Christine Cornish Smith, Ben Davis
Photo: The Muny

Oklahoma! is one of the most important musicals in the history of the genre. In fact, it’s often credited as the first “modern musical”, and it caused a sensation when it was first staged on Broadway in 1943.  Since then, it’s become a staple of professional, amateur and school theatre to the point of almost becoming a cliche. A show like this needs a vibrant production to bring it out of the realm of “been there, seen that”. The Muny’s latest production, the final show of its 2015 summer season, has a strong production team and promising cast, and I had been looking forward to seeing it all season. Ultimately, though, while I find this production thoroughly entertaining, I was expecting “amazing” and what I see here is simply “very good”.

This is a familiar story to many, as iconic as this show has become. The opening, as cowboy Curly (Ben Davis) starts singing the glorious “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” offstage before he appears to serenade Aunt Eller (Beth Leavel) is legendary. The story goes on to follow the awkward romance between Curly and Aunt Eller’s spunky niece, Laurey (Christine Cornish Smith), who is also being pursued by the intense, stalker-ish hired hand Jud Fry (Alexander Gemignani). Meanwhile, Laurey’s friend, the amorous Ado Annie (Jenni Barber) enjoys flirtations with various men but finds herself torn between her earnest suitor Will Parker (Clyde Alves) and a traveling peddler, Ali Hakim (Nehal Joshi), who just wants a fling with Annie but her protective father (Shaver Tillitt) has other ideas. The classic songs are here, from the romantic “People Will Say We’re In Love” to the energetic “Kansas City” to the iconic title song. It’s a show with humor, drama, romance and a lot of energetic dancing, done very well in the Muny’s production.

The choreography here is recreated from Susan Stroman’s work for the celebrated 1998 London revival and its 2002 Broadway staging, and the dancing is the real highlight of this production. Notably, the “dream ballet” is danced by the performers playing Laurey and Curly, rather than by dance doubles as in the original production. I like this new convention, since it adds a sense of immediacy to the ballet that previous versions tended to lack.  Smith especially is an exceptional dancer, and she brings out the full range of Laurey’s emotions–from fear, to hope, to doubt, and more–in her dance.  The whole company does an excellent job all-around with the dancing, as well, from the vibrant “Kansas City” number led by the dynamic Alves as Will to the whimsical “Many a New Day” for Laurey and the female ensemble, to the raucus “The Farmer and the Cowmen” production number in Act 2. This is a wonderful show for dance, and the Muny does it right.

The casting, for the most part, is strong, although this production has made a choice that I’ve often regarded as a mistake–it’s cast a Curly who, despite his excellent voice, is too mature for the role.  Davis, who was wonderful as Emile DeBecque in the Muny’s South Pacific a few seasons agosings the songs beautifully, but isn’t entirely convincing as a lovestruck young cowboy. The dialogue for this show suggests that Curly isn’t that much older than Laurey. He isn’t Emile, or Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. Those shows require an age difference between the romantic leads, but in this show, that doesn’t really work. Opposite Smith, Davis doesn’t convince. Their chemistry is awkward at best, although Smith gives an otherwise strong, gutsy performance as Laurey, and she has a great voice. Otherwise, it’s a good cast, with Leavel as the feisty Aunt Eller and Gemignani as the creepy Jud being the standouts. Alves and Barber make a sweet pair as Will and Ado Annie as well, although their Act 2 duet “All Or Nothing” lacked some of the comic spark that this song is supposed to have. Joshi as Ali Hakim gives a fun comic performance, as well, and the ensemble is first rate, especially in the dance numbers.

Another highlight of this production is its wonderful production values. Michael Schweikardt’s set is beautfully detailed, with a realistic farmhouse on the turntable that rotates to reveal Jud’s rundown smokehouse. In Act 2, the unfinished structure of the community’s schoolhouse makes a striking backdrop for the action of the show. The costumes, by Martin Pakledinaz with additional design by Amy Clark, are colorful and appropriately evocative of the period and characters. John Lasiter’s lighting is striking as well, lending a dreamy air to the the ballet sequence especially.  The outdoor setting is also especially kind to this show that mostly takes place outside on the broad plains of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma! is the very definition of a classic musical, and it’s a fitting show for the Muny, which is an icon in itself. I’ve come to expect a little more from the Muny lately, especially in the last few years, and this production is certainly entertaining. Although it’s not exactly the exceptional production I had been hoping for, it’s still a fine production, and a good show to close out the Muny’s 97th season.

Cast of Oklahoma! Photo: The Muny

Cast of Oklahoma!
Photo: The Muny

Oklahoma! runs at the Muny in Forest Park until August 16th, 2015.

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When I was a teenager back in the 1980s, my Mom would occasionally take the family to a show at a local dinner theatre. I still remember the one time when our waiter informed us that he would be playing Curly in that evening’s performance of Oklahoma! Actors doubled as waiters at this particular dinner theatre. Our waiter, whose name was Kevin, was not the principal Curly—he was the understudy. Kevin was young, possibly only a year or two out of college.  He was good-looking and very personable, and we hadn’t heard of the actor who was supposed to play Curly anyway, so we had no objections whatsoever. When the show started, my family was cheering for Kevin, and he turned out to be a wonderful Curly. His youth actually added to the characterization, and I was happy to see this young actor get a chance to show what he could do. I wasn’t disappointed in the least that I hadn’t seen the main actor. Now, of course this was a dinner theatre and not Broadway or the West End, but that experience stayed with me over the years to the point where I have come to truly respect and appreciate understudies, and I have seen some great ones since that I have never regretted seeing instead of the billed actors.

I’m writing this post as a direct reaction to a conversation I saw on Twitter yesterday. Tam Mutu (@tammutu), a wonderful actor and singer who is currently playing Javert in Les Miserables in the West End, asked a series of questions about theatregoers’ opinions of understudies and received a variety of responses. I did respond to one of his questions, but because it was Twitter and limited to 140 characters, I think my response was inadequate. I also looked at a lot of the responses and saw the whole dialogue that developed, and I thought this would be a subject worth writing about. I’m not going to go over all the Twitter responses, but I’m going to respond to some of Mr. Mutu’s questions individually and also try to explore the whole idea of understudies and why I think they are so worthy of respect.

Tam Mutu’s first question was (to paraphrase) “would you rather see a show with an ill principal actor or a healthy understudy?” To this question, my answer is easy—a healthy understudy. This is for the sake of both the principal and the understudy, because if a performer is ill, he or she should be resting. Singing through a cold can damage the vocal cords, and it’s much better if a performer sits out a few performances rather than hurting his or her voice in the long run. Also, understudies are trained performers who work hard and are just as dedicated as the principals. Some understudies have even been given their big breaks because they went on for the scheduled star on particular night, and a producer happened to be in the audience to see that understudy give an amazing performance. Shirley MacLaine in The Pajama Game on Broadway is a famous example.

Now, the word “star” brings up another issue for me. I often wonder if the reason a lot of people get disappointed when the understudy is on is that there is a perception that they are somehow getting “second best” because the understudy isn’t as well-known. I don’t think in terms of “stars” when I see shows generally, unless it’s a legend like Bernadette Peters or Michael Crawford, but the fact is that even legendary veterans like these are human beings and they can get ill. It’s much better for them if they take a little bit of time off and get healthy, and in the meantime, the audience potentially gets a real treat, like when I saw Anything Goes on Broadway and both “star” performers—Sutton Foster and Joel Grey—were off. That allowed me to discover two wonderful performers in Tari Kelly and Robert Creighton, and I did not for one minute feel like I was getting “second best”. In fact, when Tari Kelly came to St. Louis to star in the Muny’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, I was excited because I had already seen her on Broadway and knew what a great performer she was.

This also brings me to another question Tam Mutu asked on Twitter, which was about what a person would do if they went to see their favorite performer in a show and they were off. That’s about the only time when I would possibly be tempted to exchange my tickets, especially if I had traveled a very long way to see a particular performer (as I have done a few times). I might postpone a special trip if it involves flying, but if that’s not possible or if I were already there I would most likely see the show. I have never exchanged my tickets because an understudy was on and probably wouldn’t in that case either, because I would want to see the show and the rest of the cast, but I can’t say the thought wouldn’t cross my mind. I do think that after seeing the show with the understudy, if it’s possible I would try to see it again later in the week (depending on how long I was in that city) if the favored performer was back in. I don’t blame other people for exchanging their tickets, though, especially if they can’t afford to see the show twice. It’s not about seeing “the star” in that case. It’s about seeing someone you really admire as a performer (whether they’re famous or not) and made an extra effort to see, and it’s understandably a letdown if you get there and find out the understudy is on, no matter how great the understudy is. Even though I probably would still see the show, my response to Mr. Mutu when he asked if people would change their tickets if they knew in advance that a performer would be off was basically “it depends on who it is”, and that is why. There is no disrespect whatsoever intended toward the very hardworking understudies or the performers who take time off for much-needed recovery from illness.

In addition to favorite performers, sometimes there’s just a performance that is so talked-about that you really want to see it, and so when there’s an understudy on, the disappointment is understandable. I wouldn’t change my tickets in that case either, though, because that has happened to me. When the Next to Normal tour came to St. Louis, starring the Tony-winning Alice Ripley as Diana, I have to admit I was disappointed when I looked at the cast board upon arriving at the theatre and saw that Ripley was off. Once I sat down and watched the show I was very glad I got the chance to see her standby, Pearl Sun, give an outstanding performance. I did get an opportunity for discount tickets to see the show again, so I bought them in hopes of seeing Ripley, and when I did I was glad I had seen both performers because they each brought something different to the role. I also saw Jason Watson, the standby for the role of Dan, the first time I saw the show, and thought he was wonderful as well. It was a great experience to get to see the show twice with different leads each time. I understand that some people won’t be able to do that, but I was happy that I did.

I guess the point of all of this is to say that talented performers are everywhere, and just because someone isn’t a “star” or a household name doesn’t mean they’re not a fantastic performer and possibly (like Shirley MacLaine and others) a future star. Also, when you get to a show and find that the understudy is on, while I do understand being disappointed if the principal was someone you really wanted to see, please try not to think you’re getting “second best”.  The understudy just may surprise you. Also, it helps to remember that actors are not super-human and that they do get ill occasionally.  It’s understandable to be disappointed, but please don’t blame them when they need to take a few days off. Thanks to Tam Mutu for asking such thought-provoking questions and I really look forward to seeing him as Javert when I see the show in October. If unfortunately he is off, though, I’m sure his understudy will be great as well. Thanks also to all the wonderful understudies I have seen over the years, starting with Kevin at that dinner theatre years ago. Great talent is great talent, whether the performer is a “star” or not, and these unsung heroes have proven that year after year.

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