Musical Theater / Theater

Oklahoma! At the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Colonial Theatre through July 20, 2013

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Oklahoma, Cast. Photo Abby LePage.
Oklahoma, Cast. Photo Abby LePage.

Oklahoma! At the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Colonial Theatre through July 20, 2013
Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Eric Hill
Choreographed by Gerry McIntyre
Music Direction by Steven Freeman
Scenic Design by Brett J. Banakis
Lighting by Michael Chybowski
Costumes by David Murin

Cast: Austin Durant, Jarid Faubel, Matt Gibson, Christopher Gurr, Chasten Harmon, Jennifer Jong, Diane Phelan, and Kristine Zbornik. Ensemble.

For lovers of the American musical theatre there is no better reason for goose bumps than a large cast of energetic performers strutting toward the footlights singing the title song of Oklahoma!. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein set up this moment perfectly with the full orchestra playing a rising scale pattern. Finally we hear the one-note crescendo and the familiar melody.

This song is a highlight of the current Berkshire Theatre Group production of Oklahoma! playing through July 20th. If only the entire show were as exciting.

Oklahoma!, which premiered in 1943, was a watershed musical. It was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first show together. It fully integrated the songs and plot. It included a dream ballet (danced dreamily in the present production by Jennifer Jong) in which the leading female character, Laurey, imagines her future. And the plot included dark as well as light subjects.

Based on the 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs, the story takes place in the Oklahoma Territory in the early 1900s, just before statehood. It is the day of the box social when Curly, a socially awkward yet otherwise confident cowboy, ambles onto the stage singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” to Laurey’s Aunt Eller. Curly is afraid to ask Laurey to the box social (an auction of lunch baskets prepared by the women to raise money for a new schoolhouse) taking place that evening. Laurey is too shy to express her feelings to Curly and so they playfully spar. The romance of the other couple in the show, Will Parker, just returned from Kansas City, and the flirtatious Ado Annie, who changes her affections from Will to the peddler Ali Hakim as easily as we change channels with a remote, is humorously rocky. The action turns serious when Jud Fry, a moody and dark ranch hand for Laurey and Aunt Eller, bids for Laurey’s lunch basket. At Laurey’s and Curly’s wedding toward the end of the show the angry Jud tries to kill Curly and ends up killing himself.

Christopher Gurr, Walter Hudson, Chaston Harmon in Oklahoma. Photo by Abby LePage.
Christopher Gurr, Walter Hudson, Chaston Harmon in Oklahoma. Photo by Abby LePage.

For an audience to relate to the old-fashioned plot of Oklahoma!, the characters must be believable. The performers need to be good actors as well as excellent singers and dancers. Diane Phelan has a lovely singing voice and did a fine job of conveying a strong-willed but confused adolescent Laurey. Matt Gibson was loveably naïve as Will Parker. Chasten Harmon was a compelling Ado Annie. When she sang “I Can’t Say No,” the lyrics seemed first-time fresh even for audience members who knew the lyrics by heart. Kristine Zbornik as Aunt Eller was convincing although she could have had more fun with the role. Chistopher Gurr was an excellent Ali Hakim providing comic relief every time he appeared. But Jarid Faubel in the major role of Curly fell short. Although he looked the part—tall, rugged and handsome—and he sang well, his acting simply wasn’t good enough. His shy came off as goofy, his teasing as cutesy, and his confidence as arrogance. The first act was sung and danced well, yet many of the performers failed to connect with the audience.

But in the second act, the show caught fire. This was mainly due to the powerful acting of Austin Durant as the troubled Jud Fry. His disturbing scene early in the second act brought the show to a new depth. All the performers seemed to step up their performances the way an orchestra can play better when a soloist is stellar. Perhaps if the show had begun as it usually does with Rodgers’ overture—rather than Curly sauntering onto the stage singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” a capella—there might have been more feeling from the start.

Eric Hill directed. The choreography by Gerry McIntye was beautiful, invoking the spirit of the original choreographer, Agnes de Mille. The scenic design by Brett J. Banakis was excellent: rows of cornstalks and bales of hay that gave many levels on which the actors could perform, were surrounded by floor-to-ceiling blue sky with clouds here and there. We felt we were in the wide open spaces of the plains. The lighting design by Michael Chybowski made early morning and sunset full and richly alive. One wishes that the sound hadn’t been so heavy handed. Miking is an accepted fact in the theatre these days [and that is regrettable!—Ed.], but Oklahoma! is a musical, not a rock concert. David Murin designed the colorfully lively costumes. Steven Freeman, the music director, led a fine orchestra of eleven players.

The glorious score, the dancing, and scenery and many of the performers make The Berkshire Theatre Group’s production at the magnificent Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of or have never seen Oklahoma!. With more spark and depth in the acting and polish all around, the production would have approached excellence.

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