THE CORN IS HIGH INDEED
Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein reinvented American Musical Theater for the ages when they created Oklahoma! in 1943, incorporating song and dance to tell their story rather than detract from it. The musical avoids creaking with age because Hammerstein’s book shuns overt sentimentality, and the lyrics are chock-full of poetic imagery and clever internal rhymes. The Copland-esque score contains inimitable Rodgers waltzes; rare is the Broadway composer who comes close to creating ballads as lush as “Out of my Dreams” and “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” – indeed, every melody in the groundbreaking show is memorable. It remains one of the most-produced musicals in community and school productions for a reason: it’s darn near foolproof.
The boys may have broken the mold of the “boy-meets-girl” musical comedies which came before, but their tale of young romance on the prairie still retains hackneyed elements, holdovers from the same musicals they were breaking away from – a corniness which lessened in Carousel (1945) and South Pacific (1949). For a short run in Long Beach, Musical Theatre West has handed over the director’s baton to Davis Gaines, well-known for his long-running Phantom of the Opera gig and stellar work with MTW in Man of La Mancha, 1776 and Spamalot. It seems a strange choice to hand over the behemoth fixings at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center to a first-timer, but it was a publicity coup that had the show’s first weekend sold out before opening.
While it is commendable that Gaines manages to eke out a serviceable and beautiful production while juggling a 32-member ensemble with a live orchestra and Broadway-caliber lights and sets, he falls into the trap of so many Oklahoma!s by eschewing subtext for a mostly heavy-sighin’, fly swattin’ ensemble. Certainly, there are sincere performances, and the vocals are superb, but there are also eye-popping muggers with thumbs tucked into belt loops, and folks standing with arms akimbo. Gaines successfully found new meaning in some of the line readings, but his straightforward direction lacked the originality and humor necessary to whip up the breezes on the Oklahoma plains – the characters cannot grow into truthful beings if they are not rooted in the soil of authenticity. And without that genuineness, this production is merely “OK.” While the nostalgic familiarity may make this a cozy experience for the older viewer, I suspect younger patrons may wonder why this show was ever a hit at all.
Act one did indeed come to rip-roarin’ life, but it was well after farm girl Laurey (lovely soprano Madison Claire Parks) spurned an invitation from her suitor, cowboy Curly (Bryant Martin). Curley wanted to escort her to the box social in the iconic fringed surrey, but out of spite she chooses to attend with Jud (Christopher Newell), the unpredictable, dangerous and sexually-charged helping hand on her Aunt Eller’s (Saundra McClain) farm. Sniffing some elixir bought from a peddler, she goes into a dream and all of the comic timing, realism, darkness and true emotion that was heretofore lacking came to vivid, thrilling life during the Dream Ballet, choreographed with wit and dark sexuality by Lee Martino (the ballet also showcased Jean-Yves Tessier’s inventive lighting). The finest performance of the night easily belongs to Steve Ewing as Dream Curly, who was one of the few chorus members who didn’t look like he was auditioning for Glee. Oklahoma! shines when actors who can sing are cast; Ewing proves it is the same with dancers who can act. Katya Preiser also brought forth true emotion as Dream Laurey – a terror and panic which was not present in Parks.
It’s been 70 years since R&H ushered in the “golden era” of Broadway musicals and some dust has settled on the green corn of the 40s. Gaines added some modern day sensibilities with colorblind casting (a black cowboy kisses his white cowgirl in the chorus, Laurey’s aunt is black), and he also cast a mid-east actor to play the role of the Persian peddler, Ali Hakim, a rare occurrence until this century. But this role is the comic relief in a musical comedy, and while the lanky, creamy-skinned Amin El Gamal certainly looked cartoonish, I feel it is more important to cast an actor with the comic chops necessary to pull off the Vaudevillian-styled, Borsht Belt dialogue (his “It’s a Scandal” number was excised for some reason).
Likewise, the decision to cast a full-figured Teya Patt as Ado Annie (the other half of a secondary romance) seemed fantastic until the Merman-styled Patt belted up a dust storm and kicked all nuance well out of the Oklahoma territory (Ado’s catfight with the annoyingly coquettish Gertie (Hannah Simmons) was amazing, courtesy of two game actresses and fight choreographer Ken Merckx).
Luke Hawkins charmed and thrillingly executed the “Kansas City” dance as Ado’s intended, the doofus Will Parker, and McClain rode a fine line between sincerity and presentationalism as Aunt Eller, but Stephen Reynolds played Annie’s dad, Andrew Carnes, as loud and perky, appearing less like a grizzled old farmer than a corpulent Walter Brennan on steroids (his “Farmer and the Cowman” number went to McClain).
This comfort-food production will feel anywhere between adequate and acceptable for most viewers, and the rousing title number still elicits a feel-good sensation, but it’s a presentation from antiquity when it’s time to usher it into the new age.
photos by A.J. Hernandez
Musical Theatre West
Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach
scheduled to end on March 3, 2013
for tickets, visit http://www.musical.org