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A feast of frolic

February 15th, 2015

Oklahoma!
Rodgers & Hammerstein
Studio 58
February 5 – March 1

Anyone who recognizes a good song has gotta luv the early ’40s classic …..O…..O…..O….. Oklahoma! Ostensibly set in the Oklahoma Territory in 1906, buy it has a brilliant score that kicks off with three winners in a row—‘Oh, more about What A Beautiful Mornin’’ and [Everything’s Up To Date In] ‘Kansas City’ and ‘The Surrey With The Fringe On Top.’

Based on a 1931 play called Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, Oklahoma! recalls a period when American ranchers and settlers took over the Oklahoma Territory and carved out a new state, wrenching away nearly all the land that had been set aside for Indians [Yes, Virginia, they still call them Indians]. Oklahoma! manages to not have a single Indian character or once refer to any indigenous inhabitants.

Composer Richard Rodgers & librettist Oscar Hammerstein II concocted their first musical together, Oklahoma!, after Amerika finally decided to join the war in response to Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbour. It is an inherently escapist, inward and backward look into the hinterlands of American expansionism, glorifying the homesteading era—another myth-making exercise from the naïve nation to the south that has long preached equality and fair play while practicing the opposite.

That said, it is also a thoroughly delightful and animated entertainment that is highly inventive for the way it meshes songs with storytelling.

A Broadway musical purist could argue that so much time and energy has been invested in the intricate and ebullient staging on this Studio 58 production that it sounds as if attention to vocals was given short shrift, but that’s too easy. This year’s crop of students is not going to replace the cast of Glee—but you make the most of the talent you’ve got—and this wonderfully animated production does just that.

Theatre Oklahoma posterWith sold-out audiences from the get-go, Oklahoma! is a must-see show no matter how you slice it. Less than halfway into their run, the whiz-kids at Studio 58 have nailed this goofy sucker with their infectious zest, capturing the weird wholesomeness of this classic slice of Americana.

Director David Hudgins and choreographer Shelley Stewart Hunt deserve a medal for squeezing so much boisterous energy and so many delightful comic elements onto that tiny Langara stage.

Ditto for the unsung off-stage quintet who provide energized yet refined accompaniment almost non-stop. One wants to paraphrase Churchill…. Never so much been done by so few, etc. It’s their playing that holds aloft some shakey musical numbers and they deserve a centre stage bow. The musicians are Christopher King, Jazz Palley, Kelvin Lam, Lawrence Woodall and Paul Chan.

Perhaps the cast is so out of breath from all that prancing and dancing and fightin’ and huggin’ that they can’t be expected to belt out the showstopper title tune ‘Oklahoma’ near the end of this long show with much bombast, but that hasn’t prevented them from offering some confident, eye-popping individual performances.

The variety of nuanced facial expressions from Alexandra Wever as the female lead, Laurey, borders on masterful.

Owen Bishop quite simply looks the part of the male lead, Curly, and that’s a major contribution in terms of getting us to buy into the hokum.

As the knife-wielding, powder-keg of a hired hand, Kamyar Pazandeh as Jud Fry affords a menacing presence ‘big enough’ for transference to a much larger stage.

As one of only two characters in Oklahoma! granted above-average intelligence in the story, Arash Ghorbani as a Persian trader is consistently beguiling without delving into caricature.

Similarly, Olivia Hutt wisely eschews ‘granny-style’ mannerisms for Aunt Eller, the benign matriarch who orchestrates the box social [if you don’t know what a box social is, look it up on your phone] and steers the star-crossed lovers towards matrimony.

Best of all, Adelleh Furseth, as the dumb, spunky and lascivious girl who “cain’t say no!” is mesmerizing from start to finish. Somehow she manages to be both quirky and strong. Her smart and vivacious performance is at the heart of this production’s undeniable charm.

The pace of this show is admirable, yet it still drags a tad towards the end of the first act where an admirable and enjoyable dream sequence—essentially a modern dance number—could be jettisoned and nobody would miss it.

For anyone who wasn’t raised in the golden era of Oklahoma! – or Camelot, or South Pacific, or West Side Story, or My Fair Lady – this is a chance to appreciate the genius of the middle class equivalent to Italian opera that flourished in the mid-20th century. As Studio 58 enters its 50th year of honing new talent, David Hudgins’ against-the-odds Oklahoma! is a clever, vibrant, saucy and even a tad sexy triumph. It makes a virtue of boisterousness. It’s as corny as Kansas in August.

It is a feast of frolic.

–by Paul Durras

[David Cooper photo: Aunt Eller (Olivia Hutt) watches the high-kicking hijinks.]

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