Interview: Rachel Bertone revisits OKLAHOMA! at Reagle Music Theatre Of Greater Boston

Rodgers and Hammerstein musical runs through July 2 at Robinson Theatre in Waltham

By: Jun. 26, 2023
Interview: Rachel Bertone revisits OKLAHOMA! at Reagle Music Theatre Of Greater Boston
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Interview: Rachel Bertone revisits OKLAHOMA! at Reagle Music Theatre Of Greater Boston

Everything old is new again. And when it comes to the classic musical “Oklahoma!” director and choreographer Rachel Bertone likes it that way. 

Indeed, Bertone knew when she decided to open her second season as artistic director at Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston (RMT) with the oft-produced 1943 musical – the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, which had its out-of-town tryout, under its original title, “Away We Go!” at Boston’s Colonial Theatre – that she wanted to give the show a fresh perspective while respecting its rich history.

For this production, which runs through July 2 at Waltham’s Robinson Theatre, Bertone turned to her memories of performing in the ensemble and as a cancan dancer in the dream ballet, working with the late Gemze de Lappe – a dancer and protégé of the musical’s legendary original choreographer, Agnes DeMille, and a longtime professional colleague and friend of now-retired RMT founding artistic director Robert J. Eagle – in a 2011 RMT production of the show that recreated DeMille’s choreography.

De Lappe, a member of the original West End cast and the first national tour of “Oklahoma!” in which she danced the role of Dream Laurey, also recreated de Mille’s work for the 1979 Broadway revival.

After graduating from Boston Conservatory in 2007, Bertone began her professional career as a performer in that summer’s RMT production of “Singin’ in the Rain.” Over the past decade, Bertone has staged musicals, for various Boston-area companies, including “Cabaret” (IRNE Award: Best Direction, Best Choreography, Best Musical), “Carousel” (IRNE: Best Choreography), “In the Heights” (IRNE: Best Musical), “The Wild Party” (IRNE: Best Musical), and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Billy Elliot,” “Barnum,” “Show Boat,” “HAIR,” “South Pacific,” and “Les Misérables,” among others.

Now an established theater and dance educator in both greater Boston and New York, Bertone has taught at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, American Repertory Theater Institute at Harvard University, Emerson College, and Long Island University. She currently splits her time between New York and Boston.

By telephone recently from Waltham, Bertone talked about “Oklahoma!” as well as her history with RMT, and more.

How does the current RMT production of “Oklahoma!” reflect your artistic vision?

We’re not doing the 2019 revival, nor are we doing the 1943 original. Through my lens as a storyteller, we are telling this story to a modern-day audience. We’re also giving women agency. Our Laurey wears pants and she is the one who is running the farm.

Tell me more about the story and your cast.

The story takes place in the Oklahoma territory not long after the start of the 20th century and involves a rivalry between local farmers and cowboys. We have a cast of 38, including Jared Troilo who plays a charming cowboy, Curly, and Kayla Shimizu as a high-energy farm girl, Laurey. Their love story is contrasted with the more comedic connection between willful Ado Annie (Rebekah Rae Robles) and unlucky Will Parker (Jack Mullen). The other leads are Daniel Forrest Sullivan as Jud, Curly’s rival for Laurey’s affection, and Carolyn Saxon as Aunt Eller.

What do you think makes Hammerstein’s book, based on Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” still relevant today?

That it doesn’t shy away from asking audience members the tough and uncomfortable questions as it delves into issues of social class, mental health, bullying, and racial and ethnic tensions, all of which are as relevant today as they were when this show was first produced. In witnessing these storylines and behaviors, we can reflect upon the continuous triumphs and failures at finding commonality in our local communities and society at large.

Is it correct to say that while this a Rachel Bertone production, it still reflects the work of both Agnes DeMille and Gemze de Lappe?

I love to pay homage to what was done before, but to tell the story in a way that reaches modern audiences. So I definitely haven’t taken DeMille out of my “Oklahoma!” entirely. That would be like taking Jerome Robbins out of “West Side Story.”

As for Gemze, there are a few of us in this production, including Dustienne Miller, the associate director and associate choreographer, who learned “Oklahoma!” from her. Every detail mattered for Gemze, right down to the way each and every single gesture was executed. We dedicate this production of “Oklahoma!” to Gemze and thank her for all that she gave us here at RMT.

The dream ballet sequence, showing Laurey’s conflicting feelings for Curly and Jud, is a signature element of this show. Tell me about RMT’s current version.

Our dream ballet is very exciting and new. DeMille was fascinated by Sigmund Freud, and she saw Jud as id and Curly as superego. Usually, Jud is very scary, sometimes violent, and always the bad guy. In our dream ballet, Laurey sees what being with Jud might be like. The ballet is an anxiety dream for Laurey.

You gave your final performance as a dancer and singer in RMT’s 2013 production of “Chicago.” You’ve enjoyed considerable success as a director and choreographer since then, but do you ever miss being on stage?

No, I wasn’t feeling fulfilled as a performer, so I wanted to shift gears. I get my fulfillment now coaching and mentoring my actors and bringing out the best in them. I connect differently with each performer and, from that, create community. The best experiences happen when the cast is connected, and we’re excited to be in the room together, creating something great.

Photo caption: Rachel Bertone. Photo credit: Mia Isabella Photography.




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