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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Review: Oklahoma!

Landmark “OKLAHOMA” Still Resonates
Students give a Beautiful Evening
By Byron Toben
Is there a more rousing song in American musical theatre than the title refrain of the seminal Rogers and Hammerstein classic “Oklahoma”? At the conclusion of its opening at the John Abbott Casgrain Theatre, many of the audience (including a sizable number of Francophones) were heard humming and mouthing the waving wheat that sure smells sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain.

The play was a first in so many areas.

That's when they were not repeating “Oh what a beautiful morning” which opens the show, or “Surrey with the Fringe on top” which follows as male lead cowboy Curley (Brandon Roy) courts farmer Laurey (Emily Dufour), both theatre workshop students with fine voices. Nicole Ewanick was a great crowd
pleaser as Annie, the gal who is in a terrible fix as  she “Caint say No”.
The classic tunes pile one on another with “People will say we're in Love”, “All er Nothin” and the darker “Pore Jud is Daid” and even darker “ Lonely Room”. Although famed producer Mike Todd walked out after the first act of its pre Broadway run in 1943, its awards and long run (5 years!) led him to making
the star studded 1955  film version.
The play was a first in so many areas. Rodgers preferred to set his music to the lyrics, but his previous collaborator  Lorenzo Hart, insisted on music first. With Hammerstein, he found a lyricist who preferred to write the words first. They both wanted to integrate music and dance into a whole with some social significance, which until then had only been done somewhat in Jerome Kern's 1927 “Showboat” (also with lyrics by  Hammerstein).
R & H also purposely chose singers who could act, rejecting the more common choice of actors who could sing.

Legendary film choreographer Agnes de Mille made her Broadway debut with long dance sequences, which the John Abbott students more than ably executed, so kudos to choreographer Trevor Barette as well as Director Jason Howell. Weaving lines of gyrating Sooners added a fuller texture to the plot.  Bradley Cooper-Graham as Will, Annie's on again-off again boyfriend, was especially impressive as a rubber legged hoofer. When Zyreel Simpson, as fast talking peddler Ali Hakim, capped one sequence with a flying leap over a picket fence into the wings, I gasped, hoping that a mattress  awaited his off stage landing. 
R & H also purposely chose singers who could act, rejecting the more common choice of actors who could sing. Thus the suggested Shirley Temple as Laurey and Groucho Marx as Hakim were  not considered in favour of unknowns.
The lighting and set design were fine and transitions between scenes were smoothly managed. The 12 speaking roles were backed up by a huge chorus of 40 and a tech crew of 27 as befits a program training for jobs in theatre. A live four piece band with Director Howell at the piano, bluegrass guy Spanky Horowitz on the drums, Meiling Fong on violin and Joselyn Picard on bass added a richness of sound not normally found in amateur productions.
The conclusion? A proven show at 75% New York production values at only 10% of the cost, not to mention that Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue is closer than Manhattan.

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