BWW Reviews: Allenberry's OKLAHOMA! Falls Short of the Classic
In any list of America's most important musicals - not the list of your personal favorites - OKLAHOMA! is at or close to the top, right below SHOW BOAT. It's also one of many people's favorites, Rodgers and Hammerstein's first and in many respects most successful collaborations. (It might not have been had its original proposed Broadway cast, including Shirley Temple and Groucho Marx, been put on stage.) However, it's lost some of its luster over the decades. Is it from excessive familiarity? From its somewhat dated writing and style? From the obvious and inherent sexism that bothers many modern audiences and reviewers?
Whatever the source, a good production of it can still be tolerable, if the music, the singing, and the dancing are excellent. It feels like a period piece in terms of its construction, far more so than the same team's SOUTH PACIFIC or THE KING AND I, but it can still be enjoyable. Where the music and dance are lacking, it can be a cumbersome beast.
In central Pennsylvania, an area where a standing ovation can usually be garnered simply by virtue of the cast having walked on stage, is a professional production of OKLAHOMA! that the night this reviewer was present garnered not one standing audience member at all. While this reviewer customarily remains seated, believing that only the most exceptional productions deserve standing applause, for an entire area audience to remain seated after a professionally produced musical has meaning. To hear them on the way out grumbling about the show's quality is particularly notable, especially when the bulk of the comments agree with this writer's opinion.
The current production of OKLAHOMA! at Allenberry Playhouse lacks musicality. In fact, it lacks an orchestra. The presence of a piano as the sole instrument in a musical feels greatly like one is attending a church basement production; a duo piano team in the pit, with not one other instrument present, gave the odd impression that Ferrante and Teicher have landed in that same church basement along with a musical. Fine pit musicians are available in the area, making this an odd decision for the music director, Alan Patrick Kenny, who is first keyboard as well. His keyboard talent is not in doubt, but his decision to showcase that rather than to bring in either Rodgers and Hammerstein period instruments or pioneer-era instruments is dubious. The presence of strings and percussion would have helped considerably - and, in fact, violinists were brought in as fiddlers on "The Farmer and the Cowman" at the dance scene. The difference was palpable. The only scene in which the duo-piano concept was spot-on was during the dream ballet that is the finale to Act I. The rest of the time, the music is oddly dull, and makes the production feel less professional.
Some of the cast are entirely delightful. Diana Wilde as the matchmaking, and slightly ribald, Aunt Eller, is as funny as she's been all season as well as displaying the makings of a side career as an auctioneer. Craig E. Treubert's Ali Hakim, the pandering Persian peddler, is a comic joy with great timing (maybe casting Groucho Marx as Ali Hakim wasn't so far off an idea for the original production), and Jill Taylor Anthony's Ado Annie (who always says "Ah do" because she cain't say no) is positively riotous, especially when telling off Isaak Olson's Will Parker when he can't bring himself to be as faithful as he demands that she be to him.
Unfortunately Curly, the cowboy, played by Peyton Thomas Tucker, looks so young and so unused to riding horses and roping cows that he might be walking into his senior play rather than a professional production - a problem for which makeup exists. His singing and performing, however, are fine. Katie Sexton, playing Laurey, his love interest, has a forehead and eyes that simply did not move to express emotion, even (perhaps especially) during the wedding scene and its followup, "Oklahoma!" Her smile, which did not reach her eyes during the scene, looked more like a grimace, and her forehead and brows were strangely frozen. Is Botox at fault? Were better painkillers needed?
Kerry Lambert, seen more often in this region at Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Lancaster, has done a lovely job with his choreography. While not reaching the grandeur of Agnes de Mille's original work, it's certainly excellent work, and the ensemble realized it nicely. The choreography, like the set design by Dan Daly, deserves serious kudos - Lambert does exceptional work, all told.
Sarah Norris, the director of this production at Allenberry, has excellent directorial credentials nationally. They're not entirely on display here, given the overall effect, though she's kept pacing and the cast's characterizations alike well on point. Perhaps under-rehearsal may have been an issue, though the failure to take on the music director's conspicuous misjudgment is a definite fault.
This reviewer has seen worse productions of OKLAHOMA!, granted... although they've mostly been in those church basements aforementioned, as well as at a high school or two. This OKLAHOMA! is much like the state of Oklahoma itself - flat and dusty.
If you truly love OKLAHOMA! then see this, by all means, though if you love it particularly for the music, stick to your cast album or to the movie version, as you can never go wrong with Gordon McRae and with a full orchestra. If you're already a bit worn out with Rodgers and Hammerstein, see LEGALLY BLONDE at EPAC instead - it's an inferior book and music, but a better production - or catch the comedy THE FOREIGNER at Totem Pole Playhouse, which is completely amusing. (HAIRSPRAY is just opening at Dutch Apple, too.) If you're into musicals for the dance, you really should see this. The choreography is well worth it.
At Allenberry through August 31. Visit www.allenberry.com or call 717-258-3211 for tickets and information.