BWW Reviews: Energetic OKLAHOMA! from Berkshire Theatre Group

By: Jul. 07, 2013
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What's not to like about OKLAHOMA! the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1943, featuring a dozen great songs and had the first story ballet ever devised by Agnes DeMille.

Now on stage at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA, it is the second production in the 2013 Berkshire Theatre Group season.

With the finest sounding orchestra - some 11 pieces under Steven Freeman - ever fielded by the company, and with reverent and energetic dancing, acting and singing it is like a souffle with all the right ingredients, but somehow it doesn't rise to the greatness one envisions for this cherished musical.

Walking the line between keeping it positive and keeping it honest can be a real challenge at times and this OKLAHOMA! tests that balance.

The cast works hard, the dancing is energetic, the singing ebullient - especially in the title number - but it lacks something despite the performers putting out 110%. Oddly, they just don't seem to be enjoying themselves. Except for the title song, there was a lack of spontenaiety from the cast, the cast offered little beyond hackneyed humor and caricatures.This prevented the characters from feeling real and the end result was predictible - very sparse laughs from the audience. Instead of being carried along by the story, it was easy to let the mind wander.

For OKLAHOMA! Director Eric Hill seems to have facilitated endless action, with every musical phrase accompanied by a methodical bit of business or movement. Much of it felt mechanical and formulaic, this huge cast of artists like an army constantly on the move. Keeping a lot of leaves in the air is not like recreating a great musical with timeless characters we can love and understand. This Oklahoma! seems to have lost its soul somewhere on its way back to the stage.

The Berkshire Theatre Group is a unique Berkshire company (Five Stages!) which produces community theatre in the off season with large casts of amateurs. As a result it has become expert at getting large numbers of actors - and children - on and off the stage in a hurry, and this OKLAHOMA! felt a bit like Oliver or Annie or similar shows where movement, and lots of it, compensates for a world of inexperience. Yet some 15 members of the cast are members of Actors Equity while the other half were from the acting ensemble and apprentices. They say an army is no faster than its slowest marcher, and a complex production like this may have paid the price with much valuable rehearsal time spent on basic blocking instead of in-depth polishing.

Still, there are several notable performances with Austin Durant as Jud Fry being the standout performer, singer and surprisingly, dancer. In the dream sequence he danced in character, did lifts with Laurie that were effortless and managed to make his role as the villain a solid, comprehensible character so credible that he got both sustained applause and a few boos at the curtain call.

As Ado Annie, Chasten Harmon was an expert with physical humor, her acting finding a nice balance between tentativeness and finality which her character manifests perfectly. But her singing became forced, especially in Act II which might have been unnecessary given that all the principals were miked.

Diane Phelan as Laurey has a lovely, if light soprano voice, very much in keeping with some prairie girl just finding out how the world really works. At the same time her Laurey was all bottled up, with a great defensive wall preventing the actorly side of our heroine to leak out. She wasn't American innocence and naïveté from the 1940's but a more petty and demanding a la Bridezilla...

From the moment he first strolled on stage singing "Oh What a Beautiful Morning," her future beau, Jarid Aubel as Curley proved to be a superb singer and solid actor, if lacking the glint in his eye for the object of his affection. Somehow the chemistry between Curley and his Laurey didn't work like it should have. For all the pent up emotion in their dialogue it was not felt in either their body language or, more importantly, via their eyes.

Christopher Gurr makes Ali Hakim very amusing as a middle-eastern accented vaudeville clown. Matt Gibson plays the dumbest rock in the box, Will Parker. And a feisty Kristine Zbornik makes for a helluva Aunt Eller. The characters are all in place, but the story itself based on "Green Grow the Lilacs" needs more than surface gloss, it needs the characters to be saturated with good old American cornball romance and emotions which were in short supply in this production.

The OKLAHOMA! choreography by Gerry McIntye, especially in the Dream Sequence that ends Act 1 was very respectful to the original by Agnes DeMille and his knack for setting up tableaus is among the finest around. Applause for his farmer and cowhand dances, as well as his swirling petticoats and ensemble backups to the singers. They were all bold, original and delightful. His choreography was fine though I suspect it would have been sensational with a higher caliber of dancers. In musical theatre you make tradeoffs and though many of the performers were so called triple threats - singing, acting and dancing - not too many were equally good at all three. Overall the casting itself seemed to be faulty.

This is an OKLAHOMA! that serves as a fine introduction for the newcomer, but certainly does not take a fresh approach or update the by now dated book. Some advance interviews noted that this production was "lean and contemporary," but other than minimal sets it was still the same familiar OKLAHOMA! What it needs is more energy, humor and the palpable excitement of a cast having fun on stage. In the end, this OKLAHOMA! was just O.K.

Berkshire Theatre Group presents Rodgers & Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA! based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, Original Dances by Agnes deMille, directed by Eric Hill, choreography by Gerry McIntyre, music direction by Steven Freeman; Setsby Brett J. Banakis; Costumes by David Murin; Lighting by Michael Chybowski; Sound by Brendan F. Doyle; Casting Director - Alan Fiderman; Dance Captain - Ryan Koss; Fight Captain - Rory Donovan; Dialect Coach - Elizabeth Terry.

Cast: Vivian - Jessica Dillan; Ike Skidmore - Rory Donovan,; Jud Fry - Austin Durant; Curly - Jarid Faubel; Will Parker - Matt Gibson; Ali Hakim - Christopher Gurr; Ado Annie Carnes - Chasten Harmon; Andrew Carnes - Walter Hudson; "Laurey" in Dream Ballet - Jennifer Jong; Gertie Cummings - Julianne Katz; Slim - Ryan Koss; Cord Elam - Jeff Kuhr; Fred - Adam Lendermon; Laurey - Diane Phelan; "Curly" in Dream Ballet - Aaron Lloyd Pomeroy; Aunt Eller - Kristine Zoornik. Ensemble: Rachel Abbate, Hallie Brevetti, Tamrin Goldberg, Jonah Kramer, Micah Nameroff, Jeff Wojcicki. Cowboys & Cowgirls BTG Aprrentices: Danielle Bonanno, Amanda Centeno, Raffaela Capp, SebastIan Dowd-Smith, Tara Feeley, rylan Morsbach, Ilana Mollick, Frank Oakley III, Keely o'Gorman, Paige Scott, Joanne Wilkens. July 1-20, 2013 at the Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA (413) 997-4444

Photo by Abby LePage l-r AustinDurant (Jud) and Jarid Faubel (Curley).


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