Friday, May 06, 2005

Oklahoma (Playhouse Square Center)

Joyous ‘OKLAHOMA!’ sweeps into Palace Theatre

The historical role of the musical ‘OKLAHOMA! is well-known. When it opened on March 31, 1943 it became the first book musical play. It not only had a meaningful story line that swept throughout the entire play, but the lyrics and the dancing all integrated into the story. Before then, with the exception of SHOW BOAT, which was really an operetta, no musical show had really used this technique.

Besides the integration,, ‘OKLAHOMA!’ laid the structural foundation for musical plays that would follow it. There was a major love story (in ‘OKLAHOMA!’ Curly and Laurey, in ‘CAROUSEL,’ Billy and Julie, in ‘ANNIE GET YOUR GUN,’ Frank and Annie) supported by a couple who served as the comic relief (in ‘OKLAHOMA!’ Will and Ado Annie, in ‘CAROUSEL,’ Mr. Snow and Carrie, in ‘ANNIE GET YOUR GUN,’ Tommy and Winnie).

It also set the format for the first act to end with a conflict that the audience wouldn’t find out the results of unless the audience came back for the second act. For example, in ‘OKLAHOMA!’ the dream ballet, the question is: Would Laurie’s fantasy that her two suitors would have a conflict with one of them killed come true? In “MY FAIR LADY,’ would Eliza be found out to be a fake when she made her societal debut?

Another Rogers and Hammerstein contribution as developed in ‘OKLAHOMA!’ was the major theme of the musical being highlighted by a key song. In ‘OKLAHOMA!’ it’s “The Farmer and the Cowman” which outlines the formation of the future of the territory becoming a state and the need for universal understanding. In ‘SOUTH PACIFIC’ it’s “You Have to Be Carefully Taught,” the song that explains the basis for prejudice. In ‘THE KING AND I,’ “It’s a Puzzlement” is an inquiry into the differences between cultures.

Other interesting facts surround this culture changing musical. Its original backers saw a 2500% return on their investment. It received not only a Pulitzer Prize, but two Academy Awards, induction into the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame and a special Tony Award. It’s original touring production lasted ten-and-a-half years and encompassed every State in the Union while being seen by over 10 million people. It was the first Broadway musical to be commemorated in a U.S. postage stamp and is the only Broadway show with a tune that became a state song.

A little know fact is that the show’s original title was ‘AWAY WE GO!’. The name ‘OKLAHOMA!’ was substituted a week before the show opened when the song “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” which was intended to be a duet between Curly and Laurey, was dropped from the second act, and a choral number was added. The name of the choral number? Yes, “Oklahoma.”

The production which is now appearing at the Palace Theatre in Playhouse Square is a non-union staging. This traditionally has meant bad news for local attenders of the Broadway series. Fortunately, this cast makes up for its lack of experience with enthusiasm, good voices, focused acting and some wonderful dancing.

Show highlights include a raucous staging of “Kansas City,” a fine version of “Many A New Day,” a playful “The Farmer and the Cowman” and a brilliantly conceived “Out of My Dreams.” The latter is the plot advancing ballet in which Ginger Thatcher has recreated choreographer Susan Stroman’s dance moves to include the lead actor and actress performing the dream sequence. (In Agnes DeMille’s 1943 choreography a pair of dancers stepped in to represent Laurey and Frank). This new interpretation makes the dance much stronger as we actually experiencing the foreshadowing of what is to come in the climactic conflict scene near the end of the play.

Julie Burdick makes a spunky and charming Laurey. She has a beautiful voice and dances well. Jeremiah James’s version of Curly is a little to down-home twangy and automatic, but he has a big voice. J. Michael Zygo is a dancing and gymnastic machine who makes Will Parker a delight. Carrie Love tries hard as Ado Annie, but she is just too much style and little true substance. She falls far short of the interpretation of the role by local dancer/actress Mary Ann Black in a Porthouse production of the show a couple of seasons ago.

Ready for a trivia question? Who played Ali Hakim in the original production of ‘OKLAHOMA!’ and what was his Cleveland connection? The answer.......Joseph Buloff. Buloff was a well known Yiddish theatre actor who went on to star in ‘THE UNTOUCHABLES’ television show. He often made appearances in productions at the Jewish Community Center of Cleveland. He directed their productions of ‘FIFTH SEASON’ and ‘THE WALL.’

Sorah Wadia, who plays Ali in this production is a total delight. Pat Sibley, who is a little young to be portraying Laurey’s Aunt Eller, generally does a nice vocal and acting job. Andre Loban is properly understated as the menacing Jud Fry. The dancing and singing choruses are excellent.

The small orchestra, which is supplemented by electronic support, lacks the full orchestra richness that the Rogers and Hammerstein music demands, but it is adequate.

The sets, costumes and lighting all work well.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Every once in a while a theatre-goer needs a shot of Rodgers and Hammerstein to make the world seem like a better place or allow newbies to gain an appreciation of what true musical theatre is all about. The production now on stage at the Palace is a fine way to relive good past experiences or lose your R and H virginity