The Players have started their 81st season off on a roll. First came a charming production of The Fantasticks; now the community theater scores again with its mounting of Oklahoma!
It’s proof once more that there’s always life in classic musicals like these, especially when the cast and the director work in slightly different (nothing radical, mind you) ways. Credit for Oklahoma! goes in large part to director-choreographer Dewayne Barrett, who has added just enough distinctive directorial touches (along with a smooth hand on staging the musical numbers) to make this production feel fresh.
The show on opening night got off to a slightly slow start, with that leisurely opening number Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ as performed by cowboy Curly (Tom Westlake, who really does have curly hair). In that first scene, we also meet Aunt Eller (played to perfection by Lilian Moore) and our heroine, Laurey (Tanya Lewis). This Laurey is a change of pace from the standard pretty blond ingenue (Lewis is a petite brunette), and Barrett and costumer Ellie Pattison play that up; here Laurey is a bit of a tomboy, wearing overalls and not a dress at the outset, marking her transformation into womanhood and love more sharply later on.
But things really get lively with the Kansas City number, led by Will Parker (Steve Jaquith in a very engaging performance), followed by an equally upbeat I Cain’t Say No! from the fickle Ado Annie (again, a vivid comic portrayal by Mary Burns). Mike Phelan is right on target as the hapless peddler Ali Hakim, a victim of Annie’s pursuits; he gets many of the show’s best, slyly comic lines and delivers them with zing.
The biggest surprise of the show comes with the entrance of the “villain,” the dark, brooding Jud. In some productions this part gets short shrift, but in the person of Robert David May, a newcomer to the Players, this depiction of an unhappy—yet nonetheless menacing—soul is one of the show’s highlights, both in the morbidly funny Pore Jud Is Daid duet (always one of my favorites in the show) and in his dramatic solo, Lonely Room, which draws an appropriately enthusiastic crowd reaction.
The famous dream ballet sequence that closes Act I is again an example of Barrett’s ability both to successfully pay tribute to the original and add fillips of his own. Both this scene and the rousing Act II opener, The Farmer and the Cowman, are danced with more than usual finesse for community theater (no insult intended) and are a pleasure to watch.
Any criticisms? Minor ones; Westlake’s voice is not quite the full manly baritone we may be used to hearing from Curly, but it’s adequate. And Lewis, whose singing voice is fine (although quite different from her speaking voice), could vary her delivery more, especially when a tragedy unfolds in Act II; when she’s highly emotional, it’s hard to understand some of her lines.
But those are certainly minor problems with a show that succeeds so well, thanks also to highly skilled music direction by Deidre Reigel (accompanied by a four-member orchestra that often sounds bigger), and effective lighting by Brad Pattison.
The run of Oklahoma! has already been extended to Nov. 7; for tickets call 365-2494 or visit theplayers.org.