Just a day after King Lear and his court lied and cheated everything but death, Stratford’s Festival Theatre morphed into the American wild west where cowboys, farmers and their women folk only needed one murder to keep the sold-out crowd mightily entertained at this season’s hit musical, Oklahoma!
Director/choreographer Donna Feore has fashioned Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration into a fast-paced show that solves the challenges of bringing Broadway glitz to a classical thrust stage with creativity, style and ah-shucks fun.
Switching from the cliffs of Dover to Aunt Eller’s (Nora McLellan’s Stratford début is a triumph for the company and the unflappable actor alike) front yard is as simple as saying “Patrick Clark, do your thing!” His set combines the easy (bales of straw, stands of corn, a pristine butter churn) with the imaginative (the entire dance floor has been transformed into a versatile platform that appears to be the rings from the biggest tree in the world; the notion of wide-open spaces is captured by a covey of stained-glass clouds that lighting designer Alan Brodie shades and brightens in concert with the shifting time of day: marvellous).
But it’s what happens on the gleaming platform that yanks the crowd out of their formal-wear demeanour to begin cheering, clapping and wondering how to bottle (and take home in a git-along-little-doggie bag) the incredible energy that spills over the footlights every time the lines and lyrics are shoved into the barn and the guys ‘n gals burst into dance.
“Kansas City” is the liftoff. As the company learns from Will Parker (Kyle Blair) of the perils of big city life, it takes only a “Ragtime” demonstration before the quick-learn crew dives, dashes and kicks up their heels in a joyful “franaticism” that is fed by some first-class rodeo, er, feets. Blair leads the way with some commendable rope tricks, then—as he would do throughout the night—Julius Sermonia dazzles everyone with his outstanding athleticism, impressive form (a classical background used to telling effect) and a happy countenance that should be given a bigger outlet to more fully exploit this talented man.
The first-act closing “Dream Ballet” is another stunning example of how a picture can say so much more than words. Here, Feore shows deft understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of her troupe. Those that can, fly to the front, while their less nimble colleagues adjust the set, carry off bodies or tap their toes with the patrons. In the “Wedding From Hell,” Blythe Wilson shows she’s as expressive in movement as she’s an able singer. Her character, Laurey, prepares to marry her real-life beau (Dan Chameroy is Curly) only to slip into the desperately evil clutches of hired-hand, Jud Fry (played with moments of greatness by David W. Keeley, but lacking the just-beneath-the-surface layer of tormented devil that Rod Steiger managed so compellingly in the 1955 film).
Yet all is not well in this “Buckle of the Wheat Belt” epic.
The music’s in the loft under the capable direction of Berthold Carrière. From the wildly energetic “Overture,” it’s clear that what might be lost in tight ensemble will more than be replaced by enthusiasm. Unlike standard theatres, the long-serving maestro must rein in his exuberant charges without direct eye contact. TV monitors have to suffice, giving a “once-removed” result to the many nuances in the magnificent score.
Being, literally, above the fray, Carrière would soon lose the snap, crackle and pop of togetherness if he couldn’t keep track of the songs’ progress. No worries: that’s why microphones were invented. Sadly, like so many venues and companies, instead of just employing stage monitor mics for the benefit of the behind-the-scenes music-making, the cast is outfitted with individual sound “enhancement devices” and the collective result is diligently mixed, reverberated and then broadcast over in-house speakers to the throng—many of whom are in the their seats to eschew electronic art and savour a live performance. What’s a purist to do?
And so subtleties can’t survive the woofers and tweeters. The chorus ends up sounding TOO LOUD and with a metallic edge that Rodgers never imagined. With the leads, most noticeably Lindsay Thomas’ otherwise resplendent rendition of the forever-flirtatious, “Ado Annie,” the songs are almost annoying. Imagine looking around for a volume control during the infamous ode to philandering, “I Can’t Say No.”
Just 24-hours prior to Chameroy’s gem of characterization, their Shakespearean colleagues were going through their declamations “au naturel.” The manmade sound reinforcements, as here, produced spectacular imitations of nature (from birds to thunder), but its most incredible instrument, the human voice, remained under the entire control of its owner.
Here’s hoping the incoming artistic trust will ponder how to achieve the best of both worlds in future musical productions. JWR