Saturday, 15 September 2018 13:16

Arts Capsule: The land we belong to is grand

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The "Dream Ballet" in "Oklahoma!" The "Dream Ballet" in "Oklahoma!" Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL

Oklahoma!, the iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that's getting a bang-up presentation right now at Stages, had a troubled beginning.


The cast of Oklahoma!
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoTSL

The play it was based on, Green Grow the Lilacs, had been a flop when it was premiered by The Theatre Guild in 1931. Financial backing was not readily available. And when Lorenz Hart was approached by his then-partner Richard Rodgers to work on a musical stage version it he declined, shrugging off the story of farmers and cowboys in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma as corny and uninteresting.

He had a point there-the corn really is "as high as an elephant's eye" at times-but even so Oklahoma! was a box office smash in 1943 (running a record-breaking 2,212 performances). It garnered rave reviews and has remained a favorite of audiences and critics ever since.

Sarah Ellis and Blake Price
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL

Under the skilled direction of Michael Hamilton, the new Stages production isn't shy about spreading around plenty of corn of its own. The broad approach is almost cartoonish in places, but it's executed so flawlessly and with such precision that it's impossible not to find it vastly entertaining. The comic scenes are very funny, which makes the contrasting dramatic moments that much more effective. Mr. Hamilton clearly understands that when you're going to paint with a broad brush, it's that much more important to stay within the lines.

He has a great cast to work with. As Curly McLain, the cowboy in love with farm girl Laurey Williams, Blake Price sings beautifully (he has an impressive head voice) and perfectly captures both the character's swagger and underlying shyness. Sarah Ellis is a wonderfully winsome Laurey, with an equally strong voice and a wide-eyed charm that reminded me a bit of Liza Minnelli. Their voices blend to great effect in "People Will Say We're in Love."

L-R: Matthew Curiano, Con O'Shea-Creal, Lucy Moon
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL

Con O'Shea-Creal hits all the right comic notes as Will Parker, determined to marry the man-crazy Ado Annie, and he shows impressive dance moves in "Kansas City." Lucy Moon is a delight as the object of his affection, making "I Cain't Say No" a comic gem.

Matthew Curiano offers a brilliantly comic turn as the peddler Ali Hakim, straight out of Persia by way of the Borscht Belt, and David Sajewich is a dark presence as farm hand Jud Fry, whose thwarted affection for Laurey finally turns homicidal. His "Lonely Room," in which Jud faces the ugliness of his life, is a dramatic highlight. There's also great work here by (among others) John Flack as Annie's rough-hewn father, Zoe Vonder Haar as the charmingly garrulous Aunt Eller, and Steve Isom as Sherriff Cord Elam.

The men and women of the chorus are sold dancers and sing with a clarity that does full justice to Hammerstein's lyrics. The dancing chorus for the "Dream Ballet" sequence is excellent as well, skillfully executing Dana Lewis's choreography, which (at least to my eyes) appears to pay homage to Agnes de Mille's original. Nicholas De La Vega was apparently a late substitute for Mark Mackillop as Dancing Curly in that number, but you wouldn't know it from the high quality of his work.

L-R: Sarah Ellis, Blake Price, Zoe Vonder Haar
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL

Bright, colorful sets by James Wolk and costumes by Brad Musgrove set just the right tone, accented by Sean M. Savoie's lighting.

Oklahoma! has been around long enough now to have accumulated some unorthodox (if not outright revisionist) productions over the years, including an all-female version by Japan's Takarazuka Revue in 2006 and one by the Chichester Festival in 2009 that tried to impose a darker subtext, but if you're looking for a straightforward approach to this classic show, you can't go wrong with the one at Stages. It's an entertainment powerhouse and a fine finale for the company's season. Performances continue through October 7th at the Robert G. Reim theatre at the Kirkwood Community Center.