Tuesday, November 8, 2011

OKLAHOMA! with a Little Something for Everyone — at UHM

'Ali Hakim' & 'Ado Annie'
Theatre can be a lot of things for a lot of different people. The most popular shows in terms of ticket sales, both locally and nationally, are the big “Broadway” productions, especially musicals. People, it would seem, want to be entertained.

In the world of American Theatre, Oklahoma! holds an iconic status among musicals. It’s been produced on community, professional, high school, and university stages across the nation, even way out here in the 50th state—quite a trek, geographically and culturally, from state of the union number 46, Oklahoma. In program notes, director of the Kennedy Theatre production at UHM Lurana Donnels O’Malley calls the musical “groundbreaking” and dramaturg Yining Lin notes that the original production, which opened on Broadway in 1943, “had a stunning 2,212 performances, a record that lasted for 15 years.” So, what—you might be wondering—is the big deal with this show? Why has it been so popular for so long? And how does O’Malley and company’s production differ from the countless others? The answer: this show has something for everyone, especially in the hands of a director dedicated to “taking it beyond the clichés inevitably engendered by its success.”

Picture slatted wood of different lengths and angles hung in layers and a tall jagged windmill set against an enormous screen, all hit with light and color, green and blue, orange too. From the first beholding, this production of Oklahoma! captures the eyes with the beauty, boldness, and simplicity of the scenography. Actual set pieces on stage are few, the main element being a wooden door frame built onto a small platform: a porch. Instead of creating any kind of realistic or representational framework for the show, Scenic Designer Donald Quilinquin creates an artistic impression of place. The sparseness of material combined with the use of hard lines and edges allows for multiple interpretations while indicating both the solid and the ephemeral: a house, a fence, rolling hills, clouds, a map of the U.S., and rays of sunlight are variously and often simultaneously suggested. Against this backdrop come the farmers and cowboys, the men and the women, and, first of all, two children, a young cowboy and a farm girl.

The children, who playact without speech, do not appear in the original script. They are an element unique to this particular production, like the scenic design. From the start, the director pushes for depth of meaning. “I hold the musical in such high regard,” O’Malley writes, “that it has always bothered me when people offhandedly use it as an example of ‘feel-good’ fluff.” Oklahoma!—ostensibly a love story—certainly has its share of brightness and laughs, but the happy and funny moments are punctuated by dark humor, violence, and even what might be called a tragedy. The story is about much more than whether or not two lovebirds will get together in the end, and the great success of this production lies in the balanced treatment of different elements, resulting in one complex and cohesive presentation.

'Laurey' & 'Farm Girl' (Ruby O'Malley)
The lead couple, Karissa J. Murrell Adams (Laurey) and Brandon Gregory Martinez (Curly), comprise the romantic vein. The two are well-matched in voice and style, with Adams taking the tough-girl stance to Martinez’s “awe shucks” sincerity. The character of Laurey comes through most potently when Adams is dancing, whether it be with Curly, with the other women in “Many a New Day,” or in the “Dream Dance,” a behind-the-looking-glass sequence where Laurey’s deepest fears and desires are revealed through movement that is both modern and suggestive. The entire dream number, choreographed by Harmony S.L. Aguilera, is surreal, chaotic, and sensual, with more than a hint at physical violence.

Martinez and Garett T. K. Taketa (Jud Fry) have one of the most commanding scenes of the show, and it all happens on one of two small, side sub-stages used for action during open-curtain set changes. In this case, the small stage represents Jud’s barn. As Martinez and Taketa sing the threateningly comic song “Pore Jud is Daid,” Martinez reveals the manipulative side of Curly’s nature and his resolve to keep Jud away from Laurey, whatever it takes. In this scene, Taketa shows Jud to be a deeply lonely man, angry at the world that treats him like dirt, and determined to find happiness through the attainment of his one obsession, all that he sees as good and beautiful: Laurey. Though it’s apparent that Jud has more than a natural share of darkness in his soul, Taketa, with the aid of lighting designer Ray Moschuk, manages to show his wounded humanity to the audience in “Lonely Room.” Martinez and Taketa succeed at creating characters with depth beyond the simple hero/villain roles they could have easily chosen.

The comedy in this production is spot on, with Brittni Michele Shambaugh’s Ado Annie Carnes cheerfully celebrating the frenzied joy of passion and pretty-talkin’ men. She’s appears in vivid contrast to the uptight Laurey with her song “I Cain’t Say No!,” but her brightest moments are when she’s paired with her two beaus: Ali Hakim, played with smarts and an unerring command for comedic delivery by Walt Gaines; and Will Parker, endowed with a very sweet and likeable character, loyal and true, even if not the brightest cowboy in the territory, by Robbie Johnson. Gaines’s cunning and conniving peddler, Johnson’s naïve but loving and lovable Parker, and Shambaugh’s ditzy but eternally endearing Ado Annie create a love triangle funnier and more charming than any other I can think of.

The cast is extensive and strong overall, especially in singing and dancing. Michelle Johnson (Aunt Eller) and Michael “Donut” Donato (Andrew Carnes) bring character and comedy to the musical number “The Farmer and the Cowman,” a very catchy song about putting differences aside and standing together as members of the same community. Johnson’s Aunt Eller makes for a convincing matriarch, while Donato’s Andrew Carnes, the judge and Ado Annie’s father, comes through as a good-natured softie who listens to whatever Eller tells him to do, a relationship that upsets traditional ideas of gender roles. Genessis Ramirez as Tomboy Cowboy is another example of gender bending, as she partners up and dances opposite the girls—dancing the male part better than any of the boys can.

In the end, the show combines visual elements, such as banners that represent “Indian Territory,” “Oklahoma Territory,” and statehood, in a way that makes sense but also raises questions—unanswered questions. While the musical’s storyline is resolved into a mostly happy ending, the bigger story, about how the United States was made, and what was there before, is only hinted at, but thankfully not ignored.

If you’re a lover of musicals or just want to be entertained, go see Oklahoma!, as the quality of production—with musical direction by Phil Hidalgo and choreography by Cindy Hartigan—is sure to satisfy expectations. If you want your senses washed in a rich design full of bold colors—including costumes by Cheri Vasek—darkness and light, movement both natural and stylized, with choreography alternating between traditional stage dancing and more modern character-revealing dance forms, go see Oklahoma!. If you want to see a show that ultimately provokes you to think about the complexities of place and dislocation of people in a time of great movement and transition, go see Oklahoma!. If you generally don’t see theatre but think you might like to check it out, go see the Kennedy Theatre production of Oklahoma!, where there’s a little something for everyone.

For more information visit the Facebook event page or the Kennedy Theatre website.
Photos stolen from Donald Quilinquin's Facebook album Oklahoma!.

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