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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Paper Mill Oklahoma! O.K.

Also see Bob's review of Poetic License

Oklahoma!
Brynn O'Malley and
Adam Monley

Paper Mill Playhouse has opened its 2008-09 season with a very lively and entertaining revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Oklahoma!. This is a production that will vastly entertain audiences who rely on Paper Mill to revitalize classic American musicals. Along with the opening night audience, I was swept away by the high spirited, exuberant, unfailingly energetic performances of the 27 member ensemble.

However, there are serious missteps here that both intrigue and disturb. Clearly, director James Brennan and has done a wonderful job with the overall tone and pacing, but Brennan has been less careful in molding individual performances.

The current Paper Mill Oklahoma! generates a shift of perception of its central triangle, which is fascinating, though the shift is clearly unintended. It derives almost entirely from a tonally flat, chilling performance in the role of Laurey. However, the interpretations of Jud and Curley make a contribution to the shift.

Andrew Varela is not the most powerful of Juds, but he is one of the most human. Varela's Jud is an inept sad sack who wants to be loved and accepted. He has retreated into his lonely shack because he fears mockery and rejection. If only others treated him respectfully, Jud would not be a menace to anyone. Varela is not a hulking giant. However, when sufficiently provoked his Jud is not only dangerous, but self destructively so. As they sit at the table in the smokehouse after Curley has confronted him, Jud's left leg twitches involuntarily, revealing the turmoil—rage, fear, fight for self control—that is churning within him. Thus, Varela's Jud is both less menacing and more sympathetic than most. A most valid and interesting interpretation.

Adam Monley is a boyish and most likeable Curly. There is sweetness in Monley's performance that seems to grow out of his adoration of Laurey. Monley is a most mellifluous singer, and his singing is an unforced, natural extension of his speech. He projects a quiet strength that is more than adequate to stand up to Jud.

Brynn O'Malley's performance in the role of Laurey is totally devoid of sub-text. There is no charming shyness, adolescent fear, or even coy playfulness in her Laurey. In the opening scene byplay about whether she will go to the picnic with Curley, Laurey is immaturely mean and cruel. I already feel sorry for Curley. A couple of hours later, when Curley proposes to Laurey and announces to her that he will become a farmer, it seems that the main benefit of marrying Laurey is getting Aunt Eller's farm. On the plus side, O'Malley is very pretty and sings well.

Near the end of the picnic, a desperate Jud confronts Laurey. He pours out his broken heart to her. He wildly gropes at her, and Laurey hatefully spits out at him, "... you are nothing but a mangy dog and somebody ought to shoot you ..." She fires him from Aunt Eller's farm. When she immediately thereafter tells Curley that she fired Jud and is afraid that he will act revengefully, I said to myself, "Tell the truth. You didn't just fire him. You turned the most vicious mouth I ever heard in my life on the poor guy." I never have been so passionately involved with any of the many other productions of Oklahoma! which I have seen. My rapt involvement notwithstanding, this interpretation is not what Paper Mill wants to present to its audience.

Brian Sears is a strong Will Parker, both as dancer and comic actor. The scene in which he sells the presents he brought home from Kansas City to Ali Hakim (ably played by Jonathan Brody) is a comic gem. John Jellison as Ado Annie's father raises the roof joyously as he strums the banjo and sings the lead vocal on "The Farmer and the Cowman."

Louisa Flaningam starts out strongly as the loving, slightly acerbic Aunt Eller, but her performance exponentially broadens as the evening rolls along. By her final scenes, Flaningam is maniacally grinning in the manner of a fool who believes that she has done something very clever. Megan Sikora provides an object lesson on how not to play Ado Annie. Her high-pitched, off-putting, over the top performance feels like a misguided effort to turn a featured role into a star one. When Sikora actually brays the word "hide" near the top of "All 'Er Nothin'," you may find yourself looking for someplace to hide. The rich humor of the double standard, battle of the sexes song is entirely lost. It is only fair to note that Sikora does some very fine dancing. It seems apparent that both Flaningam and Sikora could readily turn their performances around if Brennan would rein in their excesses. The perceptions of some notwithstanding, the Paper Mill audience is too sophisticated for such interpretations.

Choreographer Peggy Hickey's rousing and show-stopping dances make a major contribution to the evening's entertainment. "The Farmer and the Cowhand" starts the second act on an extremely high note. Her interpretation of Agnes DeMille's Laurey's Dream Ballet is entertaining and effective. It is difficult to compare Hickey's efforts to long ago productions using DeMille's original choreography, but the cowboy section, reminiscent of DeMille's ballet Rodeo, is strongly evocative of her work of that era. The full and very playable scenery, costumes, wigs and lighting are all excellent.

It is quite a treat to hear all of Oklahoma!'s great classics from the mellow "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" all the way through to the rip-roaring title song as they were written to be performed. I was disappointed to hear only a truncated version of the overture with the two minute or so middle section cut out. I suggest that the folks at Paper Mill pay a visit to Lincoln Center's production of South Pacific to see how much pleasure a full classic overture still provides an audience.

In between viewings, it is easy to forget that more than sixty years after its initial production, Oklahoma! remains as fresh and entertaining as ever. I think a visit to Paper Mill should restore the belief of any doubters.

Oklahoma! continues performances through October 19, 2008 (Evenings: Wednesdays, Thursdays & Sundays 7:30 pm; Fridays & Saturdays 8 pm / Matinees: Thursdays, Saturdays & Sundays 2 pm) at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.

Oklahoma! Music by Richard Rodgers/ Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; directed by James Brennan

Cast
Aunt Eller……………..Louisa Flaningam
Curly………………………Adam Monley
Laurey…………………..Brynn O'Malley
Ike Skidmore…………….Joseph Kolinski
Slim…………………….Stephen Carrasco
Cord Elam………………….Daniel Bogart
Will Parker……………………Brian Sears
Jud Fry…………………...Andrew Varela
Ado Annie………………….Megan Sikora
Ali Hakim………………...Jonathan Brody
Gertie Cummings…………...Kira Schmidt
Andrew Carnes……………...John Jellison
Dream Laurey………………...Sabra Lewis
Dream Curly………………...Kyle Vaughn
Ensemble………. Ashley Adamek, J. David Anderson
Drew Kenneth Franklin, Cynthia Leigh Heim, Anne Horak
Ryan Jackson, Sam Kiernan, Kimberly Lemieux
Lauren Marshall, Steve Schepis, Elizabeth Stacey
Samantha Sturm, Ryan Worsing
Swings….Danielle Jordan, Ryan Sandberg

Photo: Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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