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Lovers, Blues Skies and a Few Clouds

by James Yeara on July 10, 2013

Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, directed by Eric Hill, Berkshire Theatre Group, Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, Mass., through July 20

 

Called back for a second curtain call, Curly (Jarid Faubel) encourages the audience to sing along with the cast in a reprise of the title song, and boy, do people sing: loud and lustily, as high as an elephant’s eye and as deep as a bullfrog. But by this time, Curly and the rest of the cast of director Eric Hill’s Oklahoma! long had the audience ready to sing along and two-step their way to sod busting and cattle branding on the dusty plains. If you only know Oklahoma! from sentimental high school or fustian community theater productions, seeing the sharply focused, smartly paced, and well-crafted version at Pittsfield’s beautiful Colonial Theatre is a revelation, one that shows why Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s first collaboration together started a revolution in musical theater.

photo by Abby LePage

Oklahoma’s story is by now well-known: Cowboy egoist Curly McLain (charismatic Faubel, with all the serenity and charm of a young Nathan Fillion) woos and wins feisty farm girl Laurey Williams (Diane Phelan, with an ingénue’s vocal charms) under the wise watchfulness of her Aunt Eller (a redoubtable Kristine Zbornik, bringing zest to this lynchpin role), as the dark-natured farmhand Jud Fry (a formidable Austin Durant is this production’s best-acted performance) fatally pines and schemes for Laurey. Oklahoma’s overtly humorous subplot of frisky and flirty Ado Annie (Chasten Harmon, as robustly comical physically as she is vocally) juggling the amorous pursuits of cowboy Will Parker (lanky Matt Gibson, who brings an energetic ease to his dancing and singing) and Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Christopher Gurr, whose comic timing is a marvel) while her shotgun-totin’ pa Andrew Carnes (Walter Hudson) springs organically to life. When Ado Annie coyly but lustily sings “I’m just a girl who cain’t say no,” you wouldn’t want her to—it would be unnatural. The well-known songs—“Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” Pore Jud Is Daid,” “Kansas City,” “All ‘er Nuthin’”—seem as natural as “corn growing as high as an elephant’s eye.”

Director Eric Hill keeps his focus on Oklahoma’s story by not only stripping his production of the overture and entr’acte, but streamlining the stagecraft. Nine hay bales, a half-dozen wooden split rail fence sections, corn stalks, blue-sky-with-puffy-white-cloud drop curtains, and one wooden rocking chair are all that’s needed to create the place where “The Farmer and the Cowman should be friends” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.” Instead of a bloated, fructose-laden 70-year-old museum musical running three hours, Hill and troupe have created a sprightly and times uncomfortable slice of Americana. Here, amid the young lovers mooning for each other, those not born in corn country—Jud and Ali Hakim—are ostracized and threatened, and receive railroaded “justice.” You might want Oklahoma! to be all blue sky and sunshine, but Rodgers and Hammerstein have a little more in their palate and on their palette.

Though more serendipity than Manifest Destiny, three stellar Berkshire theater companies are presenting simultaneously three American musicals that, mosaic-like, reflect America. Barrington Stage’s On the Town, written a year after Oklahoma!; Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Animal Crackers, indicative of musicals before Oklahoma!; and Berkshire Theatre Group’s sharp production of a musical masterpiece are a rich, rare treat that should be savored. “And the land we belong to is grand” in deed and in song.