I first saw the new production of Oklahoma! that’s inaugurating the newly-refurbished Arena Stage thanks to a friend involved with the production who got me tickets to the invited dress rehearsal. Given that the curtain call hadn’t even been staged at that point, I felt it wisest to suspend any public comment about the venture.
My overarching impression of the show was that it was a venture of a director who didn’t like musicals and was theatrically wary of spectacle. In addition, there seemed so much effort in trying to re-think Oklahoma — starting with a dumb-show sequence instead of Aunt Eller on the porch churning butter, beefing and hottening- up the role of Judd, cutting verses and reprises, changing Laurie from a soprano ingénue with spunk to a charmless, hostile belter, aggressively non-traditional casting, limiting the dance in the performance to the dance breaks in songs rather than have it imbue the program – that I wondered in part why even do the show.
Other things also annoyed me like the set pieces that seem to block audience views of the action, a lifeless, under-staged, under-harmonized title number, and an unfinished-looking set. But there were bright spots, particularly E. Faye Butler as Aunt Eller and June Schreiner as Ado Annie.
I was also fortunate to see opening night two weeks later as the guest of another friend involved with the show.
As the world knows, the leading lady had been replaced by this point by Elisha Gamble singing the role gorgeously and exuding masses of charm every moment she is onstage.
But during the show it struck me that Molly Smith really seemed to want to direct the play Green Grow the Lilacs and not the musical Oklahoma! Every time a musical number came along, I really felt that it was interrupting Smith’s attempt at storytelling – ironic for the show that most famously integrated musical numbers into the dramatic action, and was famous for billing itself as a “musical play” rather than a “musical comedy.” I also questioned a musical where the fight choreography seemed to be more compelling and featured more prominently than the dance choreography.
But I have to confess that mine seems to an idiosyncratically cranky take on this venture. Ron who went to opening night with me was practically turning cartwheels coming out of the theater. The show has become the highest-grossing venture in Arena history and has even extended. Evidently the Rodgers & Hammerstein people love the show. And I haven’t talked to anyone who has seen it who doesn’t love it.
A general rule for cabaret performers filtering feedback is that 30 audience members will have 30 different reactions to anything and that one person’s favorite number will be someone else’s most annoying moment in your show. But if you get the same reaction from 29 out of 30 people it would be wise to listen to it. I’m feeling that about what seems to be a general consensus on Oklahoma! Okay.