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.