Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Theater review: Oklahoma! at Irving Arts Center
Some of the most genuine feelings of fun I've felt from a group on stage in a long time.
Oh, what a beautiful day! And thus begins the gush of praise for Oklahoma! (presented by Lyric Stage at Irving Arts Center through June 24). Director Cheryl Denson assembled a well-rounded, exuberant cast to weave this tale of turn-of-the-century young love, and combined with thirty three equally exuberant instrumentalists, Sunday's afternoon at the theater was nearly flawless.
In a century filled with prolific stage pieces, Oklahoma! is important because it was the first collaboration of the acclaimed duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. They would go on to write stage classics like The King and I, South Pacific and The Sound of Music, but Oklahoma!, which debuted on Broadway in 1943, was their first. The fact that theaters still produce it this many decades later certainly speaks to the show's longevity and timelessness. But in the case of Lyric Stage's production, the interest lay in three perfectly blended ingredients: set, orchestra and cast.
The whole of the show is told in five scenes, and Michael Schweikardt's set design established each scene marvelously. The majority of the story takes place in front of Laurey's farm, complete with a two-story whitewashed house and a wrap-around porch that looked simply plucked from the early 1900s. A water well, a grove of tall corn, a gigantic windmill and an incredible blue sky backdrop served to round out the design. The smokehouse portion of the set was equally impressive as it was lowered from the rafters in front of the proscenium to facilitate a set change behind the curtain.
I love supporting theater at all levels, but nothing quite compares to the anticipation of knowing a hopefully beautiful stage experience will be accompanied by a live orchestra. Conductor Jay Dias and his gifted musicians ensured this Oklahoma! was not a single layer, one horse production. The mix of instruments was perfectly balanced and the orchestra never overpowered the vocalists. The production itself might have been lovely without a full orchestra, but I'm thrilled I won't have to find out for myself!
This freshly-scrubbed, rosy-cheeked cast emitted some of the most genuine feelings of fun I've felt from a group on stage in a long time. They linked to the audience well and their bubbly enthusiasm was absolutely impossible to ignore. Each ensemble member had at least a line of text or verse to deliver on his or her own, which made their contributions to the show even more substantial and lent credence to the air of a true community. To push this feeling even further, the ensemble was well-rounded with actors of many different ages and shapes.
One of the most unique portions of the production is The Dream Ballet which closes Act I. The sequence is performed with a faux Curly and faux Laurey dancing out the particulars of a dream the real Laurey is experiencing while asleep in a grove on her farm. Mallory Michaellann Brophy, an ensemble member during other portions of the show, was nothing short of magical as Dream Laurey during this feast for the eyes. Her ballet training was evident in every beautiful movement during this fifteen minute piece.
Brad M. Jackson was a delight as Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler who just can't seem to stop some of the girls in town from falling head over heels for him. Mr. Jackson delivered many of the show's best one-liners and his facial expressions and body language were always matching to whatever was coming out of his mouth at the time.
Kyle Cotton played Jud Fry with every bit of creepiness he could muster. His portrayal reminded me of James Dean's as Jet Rink in Giant – it was hard not to feel sorry for him even though his deep-seated feelings of inadequacy were obviously at the root of his embattled feelings for Laurey. Mr. Cotton's physical choices played well and he was able to showcase his lovely baritone during "Lonely Room".
James Williams and Deborah Brown, as Andrew Carnes and Aunt Eller respectively, were perfectly cast as the…er…more distinguished members of the community. Their joining together on "The Farmer and the Cowman" was a highlight of the show, and both actors delivered their lines with great warmth and humor.
Ann Nieman's choreography was a blast to watch and never was this more true than during the tap sequence in "Kansas City" (I'm not 100% sure if it's still considered tap dancing if one wears cowboy boots instead of tap shoes, but it sure looked and felt like tapping to me). As Will Parker, Sean McGee glided across the stage and kept his boots a workin' double time. As Ado Annie's fiancé, Mr. McGee was perfectly hapless and endearing.
Speaking of Ado Annie, Erica Harte turned in what was the comedic performance of the show. Ms. Harte's choices for this character – from her accent and pronunciations during "I Cain't Say No" to her physicality – were perfectly matched to her abilities as a top notch performer. Further, she managed great consistency with her characterization, all the while maintaining very pointed and individual interactions with her fellow actors.
Savannah Frazier was an absolute inspiration as Laurey. She perfectly captured Laurey's gentle naivety along with that little spark of fiery stubbornness. Ms. Frazier looked lovely in Drenda Lewis' costumes, and her vocal stylings seemed effortless. Alone, she was enchanting. Paired with Bryant Martin as Curly, she was truly stunning.
Mr. Martin's performance could only be described as wonderful. His perfectly paced take on this southern cowpoke was sassy but also gentle and genteel. His voice was stellar and he brought new life to standards like "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top." Mr. Martin and Ms. Frazier were at their shining best when sharing the stage together - their courtship was a blast to watch.
This show is perhaps most well known for its title song, which has been the state song of Oklahoma since 1953. Lyric's version did not disappoint as the entire cast banded together for one final hurrah. The dynamics were brilliant and the orchestra and cast worked together to leave a lasting impression on the audience. I know it worked on me – I've been singing "Oklahoma!" since I left the theater! With only four shows remaining, don't let this Oklahoma! pass you by. This Oklahoma! is more than okay.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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