Sunday, July 27, 2003

Oklahoma (Porthouse Theatre/KSU)

Oh what a beautiful 'Oklahoma' at Porthouse

Based on ‘GREEN GROW THE LILACS,’ a stage play by Lynn Riggs, ‘OKLAHOMA!’ brought together for the first time composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II. The duo would go on to write nine Broadway musicals, but none would be as important for the development of American musical theatre as ‘OKLAHOMA!’ The show fused together story, song and dance in a way that had never been done before. This laid the foundation for the musicals that followed.

The plot is simple, revolving mainly around the question of who will take Laurey to the box social--the decent Curly or the sinister Jud Fry, and the ramifications of her decision.

Since its opening in March of 1943 ‘OKLAHOMA!’ has become one of the most oft done musicals, with productions ranging from professional theatres to high schools. The question, therefore, is, how many times can you see “that old play?” The answer? As many times as you can see a fine production of it. And, have no doubts about it, the Porthouse Theatre’s production of ‘OKLAHOMA,’ under the creative eye of talented director Teri Kent, is one fine production.

Kent, whose own warmth and charm come shining through in the production, has honed the cast and professional team into an audience-pleasing team. The humor, the pathos, the wonder of quality theatre are all present. A sign of a good musical production is often keyed by watching what the chorus is doing. In this production the chorus doesn’t just stand around and wait for their chance to sing or say an occasional line, each person is emotionally involved in every scene.

John R. Crawford’s choreography is not only creative, but is well executed by the dynamic cast. He makes the dances his own, not copying the style of the Agnes de Mille, the award winning choreographer of the original production. The dream ballet, which reveals the main characters’ hidden fears and desires is the finest I’ve ever seen. It is mesmerizing as danced by Kaitlyn Black and J. Cole Burden and the supporting cast.

The singers blend well and the orchestra, under the direction of Melissa Fucci, generally performs well. They wisely don’t drown out the singers. Nolan O’Dell’s sets, Kazuko Inoue’s costumes and Cynthia Stillings’ lighting design all work.

In each Roger and Hammerstein show, one song carries the authors’ message which is often a need for peace and harmony. In ‘OKLAHOMA’ the tune is “The Farmer and the Cowman.” It is given a rousing production number. Other highlights include “Kansas City,” “I Cain’t Say No,” “All or Nothin’” and “Oklahoma.”

Kayce L. Cummings is charming as Laurey. She gives a unique spin to the role. Instead of playing it “sweet and innocent,” she adds a level of spunkiness to the character. Her singing voice is superb. She is beautiful to top it off.

Eric van Baars as Will and MaryAnn Black as Ado Annie electrify the stage whenever they appear. It is impossible not to smile every time they sing, dance or speak a line. Each of their songs is a show stopper.

Lissy Gulick makes a delightful Aunt Eller. Rosario Costanzo does the best Ali Hakim since Joseph Buloff portrayed the role in the original Broadway production. Sarah Lyon’s giggling Gertie is delightfully grating. After a slow emotional start Michael Sherman grows into the role of the menacing Jud Fry. He has a nice singing voice and physically fits the role.

James Love as Curley, who is a trained opera singer, has a marvelous singing voice and physically fits the role. Unfortunately, his lines are generally delivered in a flat, emotionally-void manner. Because of this, there is very little of the needed spark between him and Laurey. His body is stiff and he appears out of his acting element in this fine cast.

A minor glitch in the emotional involvement takes place at the show’s climax when Jud falls on his knife and dies during a fight with Curley. For some inexplicable reason, Kent has the cast roll the body over so that we can clearly see that Jud wasn’t stabbed at all. It breaks the spell since the audience is so close to the action.

Capsule Judgement: Saddle up your trusty colt (or the SUV) and ride out to Porthouse to see what will probably be the best production of ‘OKLAHOMA’ “ya evur mite see.”