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Theater Reviews

Rousing 'Oklahoma!' Revival at Glimmerglass Festival

This review appeared originally in the Albany, NY Patch:

It was 1943, and the United States was at war. But on March 31st of that year, Oklahoma!, the first musical collaboration of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist and book writer Oscar Hammerstein II, opened on Broadway, and for the audience that night at the St. James Theatre, any doubts about America's ability to vanquish its enemies were washed away by the show's patriotic fervor and glorious melodies.

Put simply, how could an audience listen to the title song and its rousing lyric--"We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand"--and not cheer, for the U.S. of A. and the brave men and women fighting overseas?

Seventy-four years later, that patriotic zeal still radiates at times from the show, which the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, NY, opened July 8th in a spirited production, conducted by James Lowe with precision and zeal.

From the moment Jarrett Ott, as the cowboy hero, Curly, appears in a spotlight at the back of the Alice Busch Opera Theater, and swaggers down the aisle boisterously singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," you feel the musical's vitality. The fine Rodgers tunes, and Hammerstein's jaunty lyrics, urge our affection for a less complicated era, when Oklahoma was just a territory, and the rivalry between cowboys and farmers could be resolved with a good song and a lively two-step.

But the show's astute director, Molly Smith, knows that times have changed, theatrically as well as politically. There's a slightly darker side to this musical, despite the chaste romance between Curley and Laurey (Vanessa Becerra), and the comic wooing of Will Parker (Michael Roach) for Ado Annie Carnes (Emma Roos), the girl who "cain't say no" to a kiss when a man--any man--whispers sweet nothings.

Smith, the artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where she directed a widely praised revival of Oklahoma! in 2011, finds the underside of the musical's story. At Glimmerglass, on a mostly bare proscenium, against a blue sky and scenic designer Eugene Lee's artful, miniature rendition of a farmhouse, Becerra's Laurey is more serious than cheerful. As she hints to her affectionate Aunt Eller (Judith Skinner), she fears the sexual advances of hired hand Jud Fry (the strong-voiced Michael Hewitt, of the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program). Jud collects pictures of naked women and, Laurey haltingly tells Aunt Eller, peeks at her through the windows of the farmhouse.

In Smith's production, the underlying theme is not patriotism but sexuality. Light-hearted flirtation in the case of the two leading pairs of lovers, but something considerably threatening from the obsessed Jud Fry.

As always at the Glimmerglass Festival, the cast is a mixture of Young Artists, the Program's graduates and artists with established careers.

In this Oklahoma! the Young Artists steal the show. In addition to Michael Hewitt's unsettling portrayal of Jud Fry, Emma Roos and Michael Roach bring vitality and chemistry to the not-too-bright Ado Annie and her love-struck suitor, and Dylan Morrongiello makes Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler, a comical mixture of generosity and sly capitalism.

Glimmerglass musicals have suffered in the past from mediocre choreography and dancing, but Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello seems aware of that weakness and has continued to improve the situation. Parker Esse, who choreographed the Arena Stage Oklahoma!, has given the Glimmerglass Festival singer/dancers jubilant, often complicated, moves, which they execute nimbly. With a nod to Agnes de Mille, who choreographed both the original Broadway production and the 1955 film, Esse's choreography for the famous Dream Ballet is both seductive and nightmarish. It begins with Dream Laurey (Olivia Barbieri) and Dream Curly (Ezekiel Edmonds) gracefully intertwining and bending toward each other, only to be interrupted by petticoat-swirling Can-Can dancers, as though Jud's sexually enticing photographs have come to life, and by a sexual assault on Laurey by Jud himself.

Finally, in Molly Smith's vision of Rodgers and Hammerstein's iconic musical, love of country, and love of one person for another, do vanquish the enemy. But it's a close call, and the memory of Jud Fry's angry spirit lingers, even as the farmers and the cowboys crowd the stage and cheer for the new state of Oklahoma.

The Glimmerglass Festival
7300 State Highway 80
Cooperstown, NY 13326

Box Office:
Presented in English with projected English text.

friday 14
friday 21
Sunday 23m*
tuesday 25m*
sunday 30m^
thursday 03
saturday 05m
tuesday 08m
friday 11
monday 14m
sunday 20m*
tuesday 22m
m = matinee
*Limited Availability
^Scout Day: Scouts and their chaperones celebrate with special rates and by wearing their uniforms. Call (607) 547-0700 ext. 241 for details.

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