By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI Arts and Entertainment
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, THURSDAY, JULY 11, 2013) — You could give director Eric Hill the phone book as a script; a month to block, cast, and adapt; three weeks to rehearse, and you’d end up with enjoyable theater, even with the Zs as the predictable ending. This year, the Berkshire Theatre Group armed Hill with a can’t miss musical, Oklahoma!, and let him rip not riff.
Hill, a theater historian, possesses a directorial style has always been one of understated self-confidence. He avoids the temptation of messing with this Rogers and Hammerstein classic, which a less secure director might have done. You’ll find no revamped overtures in the oft-performed “book” musical, no radically different dancing numbers, and no post-modern redesigns.
What you get is a small town in the Oklahoma Territory in 1906, complete with cornfield, windmill, haystacks, and hayseeds. From these thin elements and backed by Rogers and Hammerstein’s rousing score, Hill produces an Oklahoma! that nonetheless contains several of his signature elements, including energetic and intelligent blocking (an absolute necessity on a stage that at times features 30 actors), imaginative scene changes, and a light hand on the emotions of the play.
Hill does blocking better than Vince Lombardi. Block well on stage, and the actors move with ultimate proficiency. The movements lead seamlessly into one another. Block sloppily, and the actors do more awkward crossovers than jaywalking pedestrians on North Street. As for scene changes, it’s amazing to see what the clever use of curtains and lights can lead.
On the last point. Oklahoma! isn’t the typical “every day’s a sunny day” feel-good musical. The play surely is of that category, but it also contains elements of violence, pathos, social deviance (in the character Jud Fry), and dream states. In other words, there’s a bit of an edge. Hill, however, wisely doesn’t dwell on the heavier elements, rightly instilling and preserving a cartoon-like, almost dream-like mood throughout. Even the stylized killing of Fry after he misses a stabbing lunge at cowboy (and rival in love) Curly McLain (handsomely played by Jarid Faubel) and falls on his own knife seems little more than an errant dance step or an “oopsies” that an artist could erase off a sketch pad. We shed no tears.
And, ah, the dancing. Hill chose to keep the original dances choreographed for the musical when it premiered in 1943. Choreographer Agnes De Mille (Cecil B‘s granddaughter) was a self-taught dancer who lacked classical technique as well as a lithe dancer’s body. These limitations resulted in an idiosyncratic style that emphasized emotions and characterizations rather than the more breathtaking lords-a-leaping style generally favored by classically trained dance planners. That’s probably why Oklahoma has long been a staple of high school and college drama departments. Althought they definietly would be nice, the show doesn’t need Gene Kelley and Fred Astaire. These “fingerprint” De Mille movements can be seen in Oklahoma!‘s dance numbers.
THE PLANET doesn’t know for sure because we didn’t get a chance to ask him, but our guess is that Hill loved De Mille’s choreography because it evoked the Suzuki method of stage movement for which he is so highly regarded. The show literally takes off whenever the actors break out in dance. Choreographer Gerry McIntyre demonstrates that he’s in step with De Mille’s style and Hill’s preservation of it.
This style well suits actors capable of fine dancing but who are not dancers per se. As Curley, the show’s male lead, Faubel hoofs it well. The scouts might say of Faubel, whose bio indicates he’s a huge Cleveland sports fan, that “he moves well for a big man.” He delivers “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” one of the show’s signature songs, with a virility that makes the home girls swoon and the gents take notice. In short, Faubel possesses the soul of “Curley McIntyre” (or is it the other way around?) about as much as an actor can do, with a robust, intelligent presence that’s muscular but not brawny.
In the story, he’s after Laurey (Diane Phelan), a sweet, innocent, homesteading young woman, who’s also being pursued by sociopath Jud Fry, played by a suitably ominous Austin Durant. When she doesn’t immediately return Curley’s affections, the cowboy pretends to go searching in other pastures. To make Curley jealous, Laurey agrees to be Fry’s date for the upcoming picnic social, even though she’s afraid of the man. Fry lives on the ranch in a broken down smoke shack, its wood-planked walls adorned with porn. Durant brings a menacing, staccato interpretation to the role of Fry. On low, we sense Fry’s simmering, seething emotions. On high, we see the explosive results of the full boil. Count Durant as another great choice by casting director Alan Filderman.
Phelan shines best when she’s called upon to sing, especially hitting notes in the upper register, which she does with impressive results. As Laurey, Phelan brings the right touch of chasteness, making the audience squirm when Fry confesses his desperate desire for her, which he mistakes for love and which she, of course, doesn’t return. You might say the messed-up Fry wants to cut to the chaste with Laurey, but the move backfires. Laurey calls for Curley, kicking in a sequence of events that lead to their wedding, Fry’s violent death, and a happily ever after capped by a roof-raising rendition of the show-stopping tune, “Oklahoma.”
The two other love interests serve as plot movers and the excuse to bring in more singing and dancing. Will Parker (played with tall gesticulation by gifted hoofer Matt Gibson) wants Ado Annie Carnes (Chasten Harmon) as much as lotharian Persian peddlar Ali Hakim (Christopher Gurr) wants to unpeddle away from her. Gurr plays Hakim with a humorously oily conveyance, his every word shifty and movement loveably duplicitous. Harmon’s Annie goes over the top — appropriately in song, gratingly, though, while acting. She could be toned down a few stops, and her performance would be the better for it. Granted, the man-crazy Ado Annie must have that in-your-face quality, but even that in measured doses.
Hill has filled the ensemble with talented dancers and singers. Music director Steven Freeman leads a tight, well-paced pit band of 11. The highest compliment we can pay is that we don’t notice them. Ensemble should provide reflection, and the instrumental accompaniment of the songs must likewise be in the background. How unlike a rock opera.
Aside from Faubel’s spot-on nailing of Curley, this reviewer’s personal favorite from the show is Laurey’s dream sequence, when she falls to sleep (or is she drugged into unconsciousness by one of Hakim’s phony potions?). Giving a dream sequence to Hill is like giving a bat to Big Papi. Laurey’s dream self and Curley’s resurrect in the form of ballet dancers (a lighter-than-air Jennifer Jong and an airy Aaron Lloyd Pomeroy, who seems to have flubber on the soles of his ballet shoes). In the allegorical ballet, Laurey plays out her conflicted feelings over the two men in her life, Curley and Jud. She dreams of marrying Curley, but the dream becomes a nightmare, when Jude kills Curley. Of course, this being Rogers and Hammerstein, even if you’ve never seen the play before, you know in the end, in the inevitable confrontation between the two men, Fry will be the one on the wrong end of the blade.
The audience cannot help but enjoy this sunny ride in the surrey with the fringes on top.
music by Richard Rodgers
book & lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs
original dances by Agnes de Mille
directed by Eric Hill
choreographed by Gerry McIntyre
music direction by Steven Freeman
at The Colonial Theatre
Previews July 1-July 5
Opens July 6 8pm; Closes July 20
Tickets: Preview: $40 Child Preview: $35;
A: $65 Child A: $35 B: $50 Child B: $30 C: $25
”Today, the road all runners come, / Shoulder-high we bring you home, / And set you at your threshold down, / Townsman of a stiller town.” — A. E. Houseman, second verse, “To an Athlete Dying Young” (March 1895, 1896)
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.