By Karen Isaacs
Goodspeed Musicals is presenting, for the first time, the classic musical Oklahoma! through Sept. 27.
As usual with Goodspeed, this production of Oklahoma! is good, perhaps even very good, but it has some major flaws..
Oklahoma! was the first Rodgers & Hammerstein musical and has been acknowledged as beginning the new “golden age” of musicals that led to Carousel, King & I, South Pacific, My Fair Lady and so many more.
It takes place at the turn of the 20th century, as Oklahoma is moving from territory status to statehood. (It became a state in 1907). We have the farmers and the ranchers in a precarious truce; farmers fence land the ranchers want to use and roaming herds destroy crops.
This is exemplified in the stories: we have cowboy Curley wooing Laurey, a young woman who owns a farmer. (It is never explained how a young woman came to own the land). Even the secondary plot about Ado Annie and Will has the same situation.
Curly and Laurey’s romance is somewhat typical: boy and girl spar, she is sought by another man, and eventually they marry before the final curtain. Ado Annie and Will are the comic counterparts. She is a little “loose” with her attentions and Will seems to not always use common sense. There’s even a third man, the traveling salesman Hakim.
What made Oklahoma! different from musicals that came before it, is the darker element that is developed through the character of Jud, the farmhand. He is bitter and dangerous, and fixated on Laurey.
Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote glorious melodies for the show, from the opening number (“Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’”) to “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “Out of My Dreams” plus the humorous “Kansas City,” “I Cain’t Say No” and the rousing title tune. In addition, Agnes de Mille created a dream/nightmare ballet to end the first act.
Every director will have his or her own approach to classic musicals. Jenn Thompson obviously has a point of view about this show which has influenced her casting and her handling of the material. Unfortunately, her point of view is not that clear; I suspect I know what she was going for, but I’m far from sure.
No matter what her point of view, she made a major casting error with Rhett Guter as Curly. He was terrific in the Goodspeed production of Bye, Bye Birdie directed by Thompson last year, but I doubt anyone, looking at him, would identify him as a cowboy. He doesn’t have the rugged, masculine look that the role requires.
It is not just his looks that aren’t quite right. His voice lacks the heft the role requires. He uses a light baritone most of the time, only showing some force with the title number. He both looks, sounds and acts like a freshman in college.
This is magnified by the excellence of Samantha Bruce as Laurey. Not only does she sing magnificently with a soprano that soars when needed, but her acting illustrates the complexities of Laurey – a young, still maturing girl in love for the first time, but one who also is managing a farm successfully. It’s clear who should be the decision maker in this relationship.
Gizel Jiménez as Ado Annie has the opposite problem from Guter: she looks and acts way
more mature than the 17-year-old she is supposed to be. Annie, having grown up on a farm, knows about the birds and the bees and sees no reason to inhibit herself; but she should not be brazen. Instead, she needs to be a little naïve and a little dumb. As she played here, she seems more like a “brazen hussy.”
As Ado Annie’s beau, Jake Swain endows Will Parker with a goofy charm that makes you like him. He shows off his fine voice in “Kansas City” and “All Er Nuthin.’”
Jud Fry, the villain of the piece must create a sense of evil or strangeness without overdoing it. He is the “loner” who is keeping tally of the slights and hurts that have accumulated over the years. Matt Faucher does an excellent job with the role; plus, his deep baritone is terrific.
The dream ballet can be problematic. It is rare that the actors/singers for Curley and Laurey can do the dance moves necessary, and it drains their energy. I’ve een productions where there is “Dream Laurey” and a “Dream Curley” and ones where Laurey dances the role. In this production, Madison Turner is the talented dancer who is the “Dream Laurey” and she is excellent. Rhettt Guter does his own dancing as Curley. He was quite good.
Choreographer Katie Spelman has created not only the ballet, but production numbers that draw on the athleticism of the cowboys and the western dance traditions.
The scenic design by Wilson Chin and the costume design by Tracy Christensen are very good. At times the lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg is obvious. When the lyric is “many a red sun” the lights goes pinkish.
Director Jenn Thompson did many things right in this production including making extensive use of the aisle. But she also at times went for the gratuitous, easy laugh.
If you’ve never seen this classic and even if you have, I still recommend you getting tickets. It may not be the definite, perfect production, but it is a very good one.
For tickets, visit Goodspeed.
By Karen Isaacs
Goodspeed is taking us back to 1960s with a terrific production of Bye, Bye Birdie which has been extended to Sept. 8.
Now this show by Charles Strouse (music), Lee Adams (lyrics) and Michael Stewart (book) will not make anyone’s list of the top ten musicals of all times, but it would make a list of the top 100 shows. It doesn’t break any new ground – except maybe for being one of the first shows to include some soft rock-style music – but it is fun and totally enjoyable. It was Strouse and Adams first Broadway show; they later wrote Applause and Golden Boy among others and Strouse also wrote Annie.
When the show opened in 1960, the plot may have seemed “ripped from the headlines.” Just two years earlier, Elvis Presley had been drafted into the US Army, leaving millions of teenage girls heartbroken.
The show focuses on Albert Peterson, a Milquetoast like character who manages (and occasionally composes songs) for the latest teen idol, Conrad Birdie, a Presley like figure. Birdie has been drafted and Peterson comes up with a way to capitalize on the event: Birdie will debut a new song just as he leaves to be inducted. Not only will he debut the song “One Last Kiss” but actually kiss the president of his fan club in a small Ohio town. Of course, complications and subplots emerge. One is Rosie, Peterson’s longstanding girlfriend (and secretary) who is tired of waiting for him to sever the apron strings from his manipulative mother and marry her. Plus there are the residents of Sweet Apple, Ohio: Kim the president of the fan club, her boyfriend Hugo, plus her exasperated father and the other parents and teenagers in the town.
Much of the show is conventional, from the exasperated father to the stereotypical smothering mother. Yet so much is fresh with this show plus director Jenn Thompson has given it such energy and an outstanding cast, that you overlook the lamer jokes, predictable plot turns and extraneous moments.
A strength of this show is the songs – even if you haven’t seen a production, and I was surprised to realize that I never had – you will recognize many of the songs including “Put on a Happy Face,” “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” as well as the title song and the humorous “Kids”.
This production has so many plusses, that it’s difficult to know where to start.
I’ve already mentioned the excellent direction by Jenn Thompson. Thompson is familiar
with Connecticut; she performed at Ivoryton Playhouse as a member of The River Rep for many years. But now she is an accomplished director. She exhibits a sure hand here; she understands the material and allows it to be done seriously though with an occasional wink. Both acts open with a series of projections – in the form of various typical TV screens – of familiar things of the period – Ed Sullivan, JFK, cars, kids, and more. It immediately sets the time and mood. In addition, she made use of the aisles which totally involved the audience.
Patricia Wilcox provides excellent choreography. This is a Goodspeed show that does not feature tap dancing. Instead we have lots of dances playing off the later ‘50s rock and roll idiom.
Adding to the effects are the scenic design b Tobin Ost, sound by Jay Hilton and lighting by Philip S, Rosenberg.
Costume designer David Toser not only captured the period for both the teens and the adults but also had the challenging task of making adult performers looks like 14 to 16 year-olds.
The fine production elements are matched by a fine cast.
The two standouts for me were Janet Dacal as Rosie and Rhett Guter as Birdie. I really can’t say enough about either. Dacal sings and dances up a storm as well as imbuing Rosie with a range of emotions from frustration to love to compassion. Her renditions of “An English Teacher” and “Spanish Rose” are great. Guter plays the Elvis-like Birdie without being a copy of Elvis. He projects a self-awareness and humor of his situation and the reaction people have of him. He plays with the audience deliciously. Albert Peterson is a difficult role, since he can be both weak and bland; George Merrick grows into the role. At first he blends in but you find yourself looking at him more and more. He does a terrific job with “Put on a Happy Face.”
It was terrific to see Warren Kelly (another member of The River Rep) back in Connecticut as the exasperated father played originally by Paul Lynde. He doesn’t mimic the distinctive Lynde but gives us a typical 1960s sitcom father. Donna English has the less
satisfying role of Kim’s mother. Kristine Zbornick makes Albert’s smothering mother both funny and annoying. It is a stereotype but she gives the role as much individuality as she can.
Overall the cast playing the teenagers are excellent. While not in their teens many are quite young. I especially liked Alex Walton as Hugo, Kim’s boyfriend. He projected that gawkiness and uncertainty of the age.
Tristen Buettel as Kim sings and dances well, but she is given a basic problem. She and most of the teen girls are supposed to be 14 or 15; she just doesn’t look it. If they had been slightly older – may be 16 or 17 – she would have fit the role better.
Overall it was interesting that many of the cast playing the teenager girls had difficulty passing as a young teen; the young men in the cast seemed to more realistically look their parts.
You will have a good time at Bye, Bye Birdie — I certainly did – and it is a great show for young people.
Bye, Bye Birdie is at Goodspeed in East Haddam through Sept. 8. For tickets contact goodspeed.org or call 860-873-8668.
By Karen Isaacs
Sometimes playwrights get so caught up in the issue they want to discuss that the work becomes merely a vehicle for the different points of view. George Bernard Shaw and Bertel Brecht managed to overcome this problem, most of the time.
Tanya Barfield, the talented playwright of The Call now at TheaterWorks through Sunday, June 19 had more difficulty.
The topics are certainly worthy of discussion: international vs. local adoption, interracial adoption, infant vs. older children adoption, infertility problems, ethics, morality, and uncertainty. And just to add more, a death that occurred years ago due to AIDS.
When the play opens Peter and Annie are discussing a baby soon to be born in California that the couple will adopt. But Annie is beginning to get the sense that the birthmother may change her mind. It is clear this is a couple that have wanted a child for a long time and gone through various treatments which have taken a toll on them.
In the next scene it is apparent that Annie’s fear has come to pass for the couple is now discussing other possible adoption alternatives. After a dinner with their friends Rebecca and Drea who have just returned from Africa, Annie suggests they consider adopting a baby from an African country. Many years ago, Peter had travelled extensively in Africa with Rebecca’s brother. We later learn that he died there.
As the play progresses, Drea plays the devil’s advocate. Why not adopt an African-American child? Why go to Africa? Drea and Rebecca joke about the difficulty of doing “nappy” hair and would Annie be able to do it. And there is some discussion of possible psychological or physical problems. Later Annie asks a question: Why do so few African-American couples (Drea and Rebecca are African-American) adopt?
Soon Annie and Peter get “the call” telling them that a child is theirs. It’s not the infant that Annie wanted, but a two and half year old girl. Annie is a little hesitant; she wanted the child to have no memories of another mother or life before theirs. But she rationalizes that the girl is so young that she will have no long-term memories and the possible problems may be minimal.
The problem arises when Annie shares a picture of the girl with Rebecca. Rebecca points out the child looks way older than two and a-half; she could easily be four. With that news, Annie seems to be drawing away from the adoption idea while Peter is gung-ho. While she is willing to give up on the experience of childbirth, she wants an infant so she will experience the “first tooth, the first steps.”
To add to the coincidences, their new next door neighbor in the apartment building is an African gentleman who all agree is “strange.” He seems to insinuate himself into their lives and soon he is bringing over boxes of goods –syringes, used shoes, soccer balls – that he wants them to bring with them when they go to pick up the child.
By this time, Peter has reluctantly accepted that Annie does not want to adopt. They are abandoning their dream of having child. Annie is tired of the processes either to conceive or adopt.
The play wraps up with Peter telling Rebecca some information about her brother’s death that he had withheld; he wasn’t with the man at that time.
The characters in this play are mouthpieces not flesh and blood people. Annie, played very well by Mary Bacon, is a woman with “baby envy” – she wants a baby, not just a child. She is every woman who has gone through the emotional turmoil of hormone treatments and IVF. Bacon shows Annie’s reservations; you can see on her face the exact moment when she begins to really question the idea.
Peter is the positive force, sure that whatever the difficulties they can overcome them. Todd Gearhart gives us the “can do” spirit. He is baffled when his wife wants to back out.
Drea and Rebecca are also mouthpieces. Drea, played by Maechi Aharanwa, is the tactless friend who says anything that comes into her head. She doesn’t even understand that some questions should not be asked and some comments should not be made. Rebecca played by Jasmin Walker is the voice of reason; it is she who brings up some of the problems of both international adoption and adopting an older child, such as the honesty of the agency’s information and the problems that may occur in a child bonding. Walker clearly portrays that rational thought, except when it comes to her brother and his death.
Michael Rogers plays Alemu, the next story neighbor. Rogers uses his body effectively to show us this man who still feels out of place in America and is hesitant about himself. He is the one encouraging Annie and Peter to go forward.
Director Jenn Thompson who has been working with this new play for a number of years, she directed the 2013 off-Broadway production, certainly makes the most out of the script. It is hard to tell if my response to the characters is due totally to the play or a combination of the play and the actors. Luke Hegel-Cantarella has created a set that can move easily from Peter and Annie’s apartment to a park, the nursery and other locations.
Some will find The Call and emotional play but I for one, found it too much like a debate with point and counterpoint.
The Call is at TheaterWorks Hartford, 233 Pearl St. in downtown Hartford, through Sunday, Feb. 14. For tickets and information call 860-527-7838 or online at theaterworkshartford.org
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