Oklahoma: Musical Theatre of Los Angeles, 6/24/10

29 06 2010

Since my primary readership is in LA, I have decided to jump ahead to several shows I have seen since returning to the West Coast.  I will return to reviewing my 2-week Broadway theaterfest later in the week!

According to most histories of the American musical, 1943 marked a watershed moment: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma premiered, ushering in the new paradigm of the “integrated” musical in which musical numbers must progress the plot.  Whether the musical deserves all this historical hype or not, it is a beautifully-crafted work that I (shockingly) had never before seen onstage. Oklahoma is canonical, a staple of community theaters across the country – chronicling Oklahoma’s transition from a territory to a state through a doubled marriage plot.  In 1998, the Royal National Theatre in London even mounted a stunning revival with Hugh Jackman as Curly; Trevor Nunn’s direction makes full use of the wide open plains of the stage, while Susan Stroman’s choreography contemporizes and reinvents Agnes de Mille’s original storytelling dances.  I know Oklahoma like the back of my hand from books, cast recordings, and films – but I was thrilled to finally see my first live production here in LA.

Unfortunately, Musical Theatre of Los Angeles’ production feels more like a community theater than a professional production, featuring more enthusiasm than depth.  Upon entering the MET Theater’s black box space, I was struck by the atmospheric set design by Craig Pavilionis: my roommate Roxanne and I even took advantage of the white cabaret tables set up in the front, covered in cute red-checkered picnic tablecloths. Behind a wooden fence lies the main stage, spread with hay for a touch of naturalism; Aunt Eller’s old butter churn and stool sit center stage, her worn wooden house stage left.  But behind these naturalistic set pieces lies a strange craggy landscape to conceal the orchestra (all except the violinist’s bow, which occasionally peeps out a window in the hill).  The last time I drove through Oklahoma, the state was flat.  The wind comes sweeping down the plains, after all.

If the inaccurate hills had been eliminated, the orchestra would have been exposed on a (slightly more) expansive plain of a stage – and visual contact with the singers could have helped music direction.  The orchestra itself was small but fairly strong, and it was a delight to hear the overture and entr’acte live.  The natural balance of the small instrumental ensemble and the unamplified performers’ voices is also commendable.  Yet most of the performers are stronger actors than singers, and many struggled to keep rhythm with the orchestra.

Travis Dixon and Jean Altadel are respectable choices for Curly and Laurey, although vocally lacking for these classical musical theater roles; Ryan Oboza and Jillian Gomez are likewise fine for Will and Ado Annie, although Jillian’s voice does not have the range for “I Cain’t Say No”; she cleverly makes up for what she lacks in voice with hilarious facial expressions.  Aunt Eller’s youth did not bother me as much as her vocal range; Maura Smith does not have the low alto notes to fill this (intentionally masculine) role of the female farm owner and often has to awkwardly jump up an octave.  Matt Dorio’s Ali Hakim stands apart as a delightful comic performance, and Jay Rincon truly surprised me in the role of Jud.  Rincon was miscast – tall, dark, and handsome rather than dirty and brooding – but his acting chops still impressed.  Vocals were again an issue as his tempo for “Lonely Room” did not quite coincide with the orchestra’s.

Musical Theatre of Los Angeles’ production is a mixed bag: a strong moment of dialogue is followed by a vocally less-impressive song, an innovative moment of Tania Possick’s choreography – particularly in such a small space – is followed by confusion.  Why didn’t Laurey wake up to Jud at the end of the dream ballet, for instance?  Nevertheless, the dancing is one of this production’s highlights, bringing an exuberance and joy to the stage that allows for the temporary suspension of vocal mishaps and scenic errors.  Particularly at the Act II the box social, the cast’s fun is undeniably infectious.  Despite my criticisms, I still left the theater with a smile – the delight of a classic musical shared in such an intimate space.

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2 07 2010
OKLAHOMA!: 100% – Sweet : Bitter Lemons

[…] BITTERSWEET Musical Theatre of Los Angeles’ production is a mixed bag: a strong moment of dialogue is followed by a vocally less-impressive song, an innovative moment of Tania Possick’s choreography – particularly in such a small space – is followed by confusion. Why didn’t Laurey wake up to Jud at the end of the dream ballet, for instance? Nevertheless, the dancing is one of this production’s highlights, bringing an exuberance and joy to the stage that allows for the temporary suspension of vocal mishaps and scenic errors. Particularly at the Act II the box social, the cast’s fun is undeniably infectious. Despite my criticisms, I still left the theater with a smile – the delight of a classic musical shared in such an intimate space. Sarah Taylor Ellis – Compositions on Theatre […]

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