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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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