Posted: Monday, April 11, 2016 12:00 am
It’s “Oklahoma!” with an exclamation point written into the title. Over the weekend at the Musical Arts Center, Indiana University Opera Theater unfurled its handsome new production of that classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in exclamation form. And the Walter Huff-trained chorus sang the title song with a gusto that called for an extra exclamation point.
“Oklahoma!” remains a game changer, a work that, when it premiered in 1943, altered how the American musical is put together, with a story to be told, dialogue worth listening to and a libretto that gave meaning to the melodic and sometimes dramatic musical numbers scattered throughout.
Though the passage of time, of 73 years, has taken away some of the pioneering luster from the piece, it can still surprise a listener with its content and the way it so smoothly moves from speech to music and back to speech, not an easy task to accomplish.
Of course, to have an impact, “Oklahoma!” requires a first-rate production, one that serves Richard Rodgers’ outstanding score and takes seriously the literary substance taken from “Green Grow the Lilacs,” Lynn Riggs’ play about the Oklahoma territory a century ago becoming a state while a battle is waged between farmers and cowboys to determine how the land is to be used. The story is also about the joy of love gained and the loneliness of love denied, a common theme that does work once again, because everything about the current staging is first rate and honest.
Set designer Steven Kemp and costume designer Linda Pisano have provided this “Oklahoma!” with a stunning and workable environment, a wide-open extent of land and sky into which shifting objects such as a frame and see-through farm house and other human trappings appear and then disappear. Patrick Mero’s lighting is magical, whether it creates daytime or night, whether it casts light on a scene meant to be real or on the evocative dream sequence that ends the first act.
Guest director Gabriel Barre gives the major characters as well as those who portray smaller roles personalities by keeping them all busy. Also, because the musical contains so much movement, he brought along a dance choreographer, Jennifer Paulson Lee, to let the action unfold in dance as did Agnes de Mille in the original production. Lee used de Mille’s choreography to build upon, and the result was most effective, helped along by the presence of some true dancers to twist and twirl amidst the leads and chorus. Amazingly, nothing and no one seemed awkward.
For everything musical, the production has a by-now frequent and favored visitor, conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos, who carefully and successfully guided not only his pit orchestra, the IU Symphony Orchestra, but the chorus and soloists through the demands that “Oklahoma!” puts on all. Maestro Kitsopoulos knows the genre and how to train young performers for the responsibilities that Rodgers and Hammerstein burdened them with.
What one heard seemed to have an at-ease quality. And for that, one needs also to praise sound designer Bryan Delaney. Amplification, usually a big problem here in performances of musicals, was solved so that pretty near everything, including dialogue, was heard. That’s a victory, mind you.
I attended only the opening night performance but plan to see the alternate cast next weekend and report to you then. Meanwhile, the opening night crew deserves accolades.
The romantic lead, Curly, leapt around the stage as a romantic lead should, and from the opening note of his opening ballad, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” unleashed an attractive baritone voice, resonant and lyrical and absolutely right for the role. His partner in the romance department, Laurey, was soprano Emily Dyer, who could lift her voice operatically and who well characterized her part as a young woman seeking romance while, in a no-nonsense way, she tries to keep her farmstead out of bankruptcy.
Laurey’s helper on the farm is advice-giving and practical Aunt Eller, assigned wisely to mezzo-soprano Olivia Thompson, who brings warmth to her character as a needed busybody looking out for the young farmer and her homestead. As Will Parker, another would-be suitor for Laurey, tenor Kole Howie personifies a less romantic and more materialistic fellow trying to tease his way into a relationship. He doesn’t succeed with Laurey, but suggests a personality ready to go on in search for a substitute.
Soprano Rebekah Howell, as another lady at the center of things, the man-seeking Ado Annie, captures the spirit and comic aspects of her role. Bass-baritone Christopher Seefeldt plays the heavy, the morose and bitter Jud Fry who aches for companionship and gets none. Baritone Bruno Sandes portrays the peddler Ali Hakim, making of him a comic figure; Sandes’ sense of timing is quite remarkable, as is the subtle way he moves to earn laughter. The rest of the large cast adds to the high quality of the production.
In other words, this “Oklahoma!” is a good show, a classic musical proudly performed.
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