AISLE SAY Berkshires


Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Eric Hill
Starring Diane Phelan and Jarid Faubel

Berkshire Theatre Group
Colonial Theatre until July 20

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg


Oklahoma! is the shoulders on which most musicals stand. First produced in 1943, and also the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the show’s great success was, in part, due to the themes of community and spiritual endurance in the face of the Second World War. As Agnes de Mille, the play’s original choreographer, said in an interview late in her life, the experience of seeing young enlisted men-on-leave watching this story of young love being challenged and a new state being born against all odds, added depths of meaning to the theatre-going experience.


In its time, Oklahoma! held the longest-running record for a Broadway show until the early 1960’s, when My Fair Lady took over that title. So, the Rodgers & Hammerstein masterpiece is rightfully enshrined in the pantheon of theatre literature and is destined to remain there without fear of usurpation.


Today, the farmer-and-the-cowman musical is produced with impressive regularity in schools, community theatres and regional theatres around the world. Occasionally, there are major revivals on Broadway and in London’s West End. A Royal National Theatre production, directed by Trevor Nunn, starred a not-yet-megastar, Hugh Jackman, and broke new ground by eliminating the “dream” figures of Laurey and Curly in favour of having the actors playing those roles dance the ballet themselves.


Now, the Berkshire Theatre Group is producing their own production at the Colonial Theatre, in Pittsfield MA, until July 20. And approaching this, or any other, classic, presents the challenge of how to tell such a familiar story. After all, we can fairly assume that much, if not all, of the audience enters already humming the tunes. And it’s probably as fair to assume that a substantial number of people have seen the musical before, either on stage or screen, or both. The story, therefore, presents few surprises and demands less than would be required of people seeing something for the first time. So, what does one do and, specifically, what has the Berkshire Theatre Group’s creative team done to make a virtue of the all-too-familiar?


Eric Hill, the director, begins by having stagehands and actors onstage before the houselights dim. They move set pieces into place and generally dress the stage for the story that is to follow. It’s a device used increasingly in musicals, with and without overtures. If it achieves anything beyond gimmick status, I suppose it invites the audience into the workings of the theatre itself. That this adds to the work at-hand, I’m less convinced.


“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’”, one of the great opening numbers in any musical, ever, begins offstage, while onstage we see Aunt Eller sitting in her rocking chair and smoking her pipe. In a production that makes considerable use of the theatre aisles as entrances and exits for the actors, it’s odd that Hill has introduced Curly, the leading man who sings this song, by having him step onstage from the wings. It’s one of those entrances that can galvanize an opening moment, but here it passes for little. And the staging is all the more disappointing because Jarid Faubel, playing the role, has the presence and certainly the voice to fill the Colonial Theatre. Almost immediately after the song begins, the sky drop of gorgeous blue, dotted with fluffy clouds, ascends from the floor and envelops us in the world of the play – it’s a design coup and perfectly timed – had the opening sound of the baritone’s voice echoed through the theatre as part of this reveal, what a startling opening this might have been.


Thereafter, the direction is straightforward without ever getting beyond the surface. And if there is a depth to reach in this writing, it can’t be mined by the overheated performance style that drives most of the company. There is an emphatic drive to most of the dialogue and an over-projection to much of the score. Hammerstein’s book is more tender than robust and demands a light hand to make the quaint rural-isms ring true. And toward the end, when Aunt Eller imparts her philosophy of life and how to survive a harsh world, it’s thanks to Kristine Zbornik that the close-to-homespun homily comes from a place of truth.


Diane Phelan, as Laurey, is unable to reveal diffidence that is masked by her petulance until too late into the evening, and the result is a prickly young woman whose attractions are less immediate than they need to be. And her singing, which tends to be shrill because she pushes too hard at almost every vocal entry, lacks warmth, Phelan has a fine voice, though perhaps she’s been encouraged (as have most others) to overextend her range. Steven Freeman, the musical director, might find a finer balance as the run continues.


Matt Gibson plays Will Parker, the second male lead, and he, too, has been encouraged to overwhelm his character by an energy that he can’t sustain. He has the athleticism to execute the choreography, and then some, but he shows no restraint and, finally, he brings no nuance to the role or his performance of it.


Chasten Harmon is all too knowing as Ado Annie, the girl who ‘cain’t say no’. Her line readings are heavy-handed and delivered with a contemporary attitude that robs the character of the innocence with which Hammerstein imbued her. As the gal who is torn between two men – like Og in “Finian’s Rainbow”, Annie is in love with the man she’s near – played without an ingenuousness, the character becomes harsh, manipulative and, frankly, not funny. That Harmon has been encouraged to blast her great solo as though she had no access to amplification only aggravates and underlines the miscalculation.


Austin Durant plays Jud Fry, the play’s dark character, with a clarity and precision that points out the excesses elsewhere onstage. In his major scene, during which “Pore Jud is Daid” is sung with Curly, Durant demonstrates that emotional truth and intelligence have as much place in a musical as they do in any drama. Faubel is a fine balance with Durant, though the staging of their duet fails to exploit the chemistry they have with each other and it also fails to integrate the music with the scene that precedes it. Instead, the singers step downstage and ignore each other as they play directly to the audience. (This staging choice is, unfortunately, repeated at other times.)


Gerry McIntyre choreographs the many numbers and dances, some of which align with their characters – “Kansas City” and “The Farmer and the Cowman” – and others that puzzle – “Many a New Day”. The Rodgers score is stunning in its eclectic range of styles and unapologetically romantic in its sentiments. The beauty of a song like “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” is that it can be sung unadorned by gestures and image-for-word literalness. “Many a New Day”, in which Laurey finally gets to reveal herself to us (as she sings to her girlfriends) has lyrics worth articulating more than movements worth staging.


And, finally, the single most difficult element to solve in any production of “Oklahoma!” is the Dream Ballet, that convention which, in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s was novel. It soon became de rigueur, though often neither integrated nor necessary. But Agnes de Mille pioneered contemporary dance, much influenced by her peers, and plumbed psychological depths as she experimented with a new dance vocabulary. Broadway audiences accustomed to chorus lines and toe-tapping cuties were witness to dance as an integrated element of the characters’ lives rather than as decorative and distracting entertainment. But in light of the fact that psychology, whether spoken, sung or danced, is rooted in our culture, the device of the extended dance sequence as climactic and cathartic demands either exquisite execution or ingenuity or both. The current effort is sincerely presented but woefully underpowered.


To begin, the relationship between Laurey and her dream counterpart isn’t explicit. While the ‘real’ Laurey sits in her rocking chair, far stage right, the ‘dream’ Laurey appears centrestage and is hoisted by the ‘dream’ Curly. And the story of the ballet, faithfully following the stage directions from the text, unfolds but never gets beyond the rudiments. There are dance passages and phrases that echo de Mille’s own choreography, but they are left unexplored, and the result is a series of dance steps and patterns that don’t push the story or the character’s nightmare fears to the breaking point. And without understanding that Laurey is terrified of being violated by Jud Fry, emotionally and sexually, there is no second act, since the events of the ballet propel us into the struggle between Decency (Curly) and Depravity (Jud).


There is no guarantee that even a gold-standard musical is without its challenges. And the presenting issue for any production of “Oklahoma!” is to stay true to its source without becoming captive to its historical significance. At the same time, and adding to the equation, is defining what place this mid-1940’s musical play has for a contemporary audience. Musicals such as “Fiddler on the Roof”, “My Fair Lady” and “Cabaret”, to name only three, respond to these demands more easily, I think, because they address universal themes with characters who speak for us as much as they do for the times in which they are set. I’m not suggesting that “Oklahoma!” has had its day, by any means, but the show’s reach is more limited and requires greater care in its execution.


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