BWW Reviews: Serenbe's OKLAHOMA! Provides Unique Excitement That Will Make All Fall in Love with Theatre
The theatre-going experience at Serenbe Playhouse is as exciting as anything I've ever seen. It's not the excitement manufactured by the tricks and effects of modern theatricality (not that I don't love those as well), but this is the type of excitement that you feel in your bones. The type of excitement that makes you forget that you are an adult watching other adults pretend. This is the type of excitement that makes you fall in love with live theatre.
"Oklahoma!," directed by Founder and Executive/Artistic Director Brian Clowdus, is regrettably the first show that I have seen at Serenbe, but I was immediately taken by the gorgeous surroundings that seemed as if they were specifically grown to flank a production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. With pens full of goats, lamas, horses, and a sundry other animals on the grounds, it is hard to imagine a more perfect spot to stage "Oh What a Beautiful Morning," especially when the opening scene is accompanied by a chorus of geese squawking overhead. The setting, and the joy that the cast provides, gives the entire experience a wholesome Judy and Mickey "Let's put on a show" feel.
For those unfamiliar with the classic musical, based on the play "Green Grow The Lilacs" by Lynn Riggs, it takes place on a farm in 1907 Oklahoma, three years before the territory eventually receives its statehood. The farm is owned by Aunt Eller and her niece, Laurey. Their farmhand Jud, a coarse and rough man, is obsessed with Laurey, who is denying her obvious feelings for handsome young cowboy Curley. This love triangle provides much of the show's drama, and the impetus for Serenbe's marketing campaign, "This isn't your grandmother's 'Oklahoma!'." Throughout most of the show's illustrious past, the romance has been played as a innocent tale of young love, while Jud has been cast as the heartless villain. However, in recent years, there has been a more thorough examination of the text which has sharpened the edges around the formerly stock characters. Clowdus and his cast have created a more emotionally honest interpretation that turns this traditionally saccharine tale into a deeper, emotionally resonant story.
As Jud, two-time Suzi Bass Award-winner Bryant Smith is the emotional center of the show. Jud's desperation to find human connection in Laurey's arms is often times heartbreaking, and makes his violent reactions not only logical, but even understandable. More potently than any other Jud I have seen, Smith breathes the slightest sliver of optimism into the character, which only serves to make his eventual rejection that much more painful. In creating a sympathetic Jud, Smith has again shown why he is one of Atlanta's most versatile actors.
Kelly Chapin Schmidt makes a lovely Laurey; equally believable as the tomboy she starts out as, and the gorgeous woman she becomes. Schmidt brings a more subtle take to the stubbornness for which Laurey is known. Rather than her hesitation to admit her feelings for Curley being born out of childish spite, Schmidt tinges everything with vulnerability; and though it is never spoken, I couldn't shake the feeling that her aversion to turning her heart over to the cowboy, might have something to do with the reason that she is being raised by her aunt, rather than her parents. When you add in Schmidt's wonderful legit voice, and her extensive dance background, it is easy to understand why she is so captivating in the role.
Unfortunately, I didn't have the same reaction to the third leg of the love-triangle. Edward McCreary is certainly talented, and more than looks the part; however, the fact that this is his first major professional credit is fairly evident when sharing the stage with such seasoned talents. In the performance that I saw, he missed a number of musical, emotional, and comedic beats that jolted me out of the reality of the show, and at this point in his young career, he doesn't seem to possess the vocal or emotional heft required to completely pull off this part in a production that emphasizes nuance over flash. I am hopeful that since I saw the show during its opening weekend that McCreary will settle into the role and raise his performance closer to the level of Smith and Schmidt's.
Like a number of the supporting characters, Suzi-winner Lala Cochran took a slightly unique spin on Aunt Eller, playing more of a matchmaker pushing her niece towards Curly, rather than the world-weary matriarch who leaves the younger folk to their own devices. Her humor and magnetic presence make her a one of the show's strongest assets.
In addition to the dramatic love-triangle, "Oklahoma!" also has a more comedic version in Ado Annie, Will Parker, and Ali Hakim. Kudos to Clowdes and Jessica Miesel who create an interesting interpretation of Ado Annie, where she is not presented as the naïve ingénue taken advantage of by the smarter, hormone-driven men in her life. Instead, she is a young woman completely aware, and in control, of her burgeoning sexuality. It was a subtle change, but it played perfectly as a part of the larger more mature tone to the show. Though I found her vocal and comedic performance to be slightly spotty, Miesel delivered some of the most memorable moments of the evening.
As Will, Austin Tijerina was the most consistent male performer, next to Smith. He was equally strong vocally and comedically, and provided some explosive dance moves as well. His reluctant romantic rival, Ali Hakim was played by Tony Larkin, whom with I didn't connect. The role should provide a laugh-a-minute, but I felt that Larkin came to it without the realistic commitment of his castmates.
Both Steve Hudson as Andrew Carnes and Becca Potter as Gertie Cummings were suburb supporting characters that drew your attention anytime they were on stage. The small, but powerful ensemble, made up primarily of the Serenbe intern company, adds many nice elements, never letting on that they are covering for a company generally twice its size.
"Oklahoma!" is considered one of the landmark shows in the history of musical theatre, because it was the first fully-integrated musical. The term doesn't refer to the cast's racial makeup, but instead to the fact that the show's script, music, and choreography all contribute to the storytelling. Choreographer Bubba Carr continues this tradition by fully utilizing the unusual space to add to the plot's forward momentum. Though "Kansas City" and "Farmer and Cowman" were exceedingly exciting numbers, his "Dream Ballet," which thrives on the dancing ability of Schmidt, is his most special work. It is a bit hamstrung by the sight-specific nature of the small stage, but through the use of the game ensemble, he creates a truly terrifying nightmare for Laurey.
I am always fascinated by the lighting design of outdoor productions. Kevin Frazier subtly changes the colors and intensities as the sun sets, adding another wonderful touch to the evening.
Despite being a bit of a drive from Atlanta, Clowdus has made the Serenbe Playhouse a required destination for all area theatre fans. Serenbe provides a surprisingly comfortable environment to see a show, while maintaining what is special about sight-specific theatre. "Oklahoma!" proved to be more than worth the drive; just remember to bring bug spray.
Do not miss out on this one-of-a-kind transportive experience. Serenbe's "Oklahoma!" has been extended through August 17th, so you have an extra week to make the trip. To get tickets, visit their website, or call 770-463-1110. Though this production is a more mature take on the classic musical, it is still as appropriate for young viewers as any other "Oklahoma!" would be.
Did you make a trip to Aunt Eller's farm in "Oklahoma!"? Let me know what you think in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt.
- Schmidt and McCreary | Serenbe Playhouse
- Cochran, Schmidt, and McCreary | Serenbe Playhouse
- Smith | Serenbe Playhouse
- Tijerina and male ensemble | Serenbe Playhouse
- Schmidt and McCreary | Serenbe Playhouse