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St. Louis by Richard Green

Oklahoma!
The Muny Opera

Oklahoma!This Oklahoma! is a perfect, five-star, solid-gold hit, thanks to an outstanding cast and fascinating dance-work re-created by choreographer Gemze de Lappe, the former assistant to Agnes DeMille. But with three rain delays, the eight thousand-plus theater-goers didn't get out of Forest Park till nearly the next morning on opening night. And Mother Nature seemed to be gunning for the excellent Anthony Cummings as Jud Fry in particular. Poor Jud.

The first rain delay came near the end of the overture, with musical director Ben Whiteley conducting what appeared to be a pit full of black umbrellas. The umbrellas were, of course, impeccable in their presentation of Richard Rodgers' score. Both he and Oscar Hammerstein II got full play in a surprisingly unexpurgated staging by director Paul Blake (which helps explain the long running time). But the show is so purely beautiful that any complaint about the investment of time seems rather bourgeois indeed.

Unfortunately many of the 8,100 people in attendance happened to be quite bourgeois indeed, and began walking out during the first singing of the title song, near the end. This turned into a full-fledged evacuation in the midst of Catherine Brunell's touching breakdown (as a splendid Laurey), when her competing beaux finally had it out.

James Clow starts the evening off pleasantly as Curly and gains great stature throughout in his gold satin shirt and vest. But it wasn't long before the rain returned, and we had time to chat with Muny spokesman Larry Pry. He explained that Equity dance contracts were changed about five years ago, forcing a show to stop whenever a performer might potentially be in danger. And with all the leaping and lifts up there, these bouts of light rain became enough to raise troubling questions about the whole future of outdoor ballet in the unpredictable Midwest.

These precautions are all clearly a change for the better, but my companion for the long night, ex-Broadway dancer Kathie Dalton, had to laugh. "In my day," she said, (during that second rain delay) "all we got was an extra $10 a show for hazard pay!" Gradually things have improved, of course. But up till about 2002, if you happened to destroy your dancing career by slipping on a wet stage while performing in the open air, well, too bad for you.

Some of the leads seemed initially cowed by the tidal wave of theatre-goers towering before them, except for brilliant Leah Hocking as Ado Annie. Her thrilling musical attacks and intricate melodic skills should land her two or three leading roles next year on the Muny stage, if she happens to be available.

The beloved actress Georgia Engel is, of course, adorable in the role of Aunt Eller. This may seem like an odd bit of casting, when you usually expect a tough old bird in the role, but you can hardly keep from falling in love with her every time she scurries on to the great vast stage. Her clear-minded acting skills serve her well too, in spite of her baby-soft voice, and she remains a fine comedienne. Joneal Joplin as the senior farmer is surprisingly light on his own feet, despite his many decades of outstanding service on the finest stages in town.

Dirk Lumbard is a charming Ray Bolger sort of fellow as Will Parker. Paired with Ms. Hocking, he helps the evening pass quickly. Bruce Adler is a wonderful Borscht-belt Ali Hakim, appearing now and then to solve the Sooners' problems, like a Yiddish genie. And Stephanie Gibson is appropriately appalling as the girl with the awful horse-laugh, Gertie Cummings.

But equal to all of them are the dancers under Ms. de Lappe's direction. It was my companion's decided opinion that each of the delicate young women in the ballet must have been hand-picked by the legendary choreographer herself. The delicate beating of their hands against the air, and their lighter-than-air leaps, were delightful and hypnotic. It seemed like we had been presented with a crystal ball, to stare back to the very first moments of the dawn of the modern musical.

The male dancers do at least as much of the work, lifting and leaping, and getting on and off imaginary horses. And the show's back-stage running crew were no slouches either, with great squeegees and mops coming on and off whenever director Blake issued the god-like command.

Mr. Blake couldn't resist, however, interrupting a fourth time, during Jud Fry's slouch into the song "Lonely Room," to observe that the rain had started up again (as it did on Mr. Cumming's very first entrance of the night). But, Blake added wickedly, "it's a gloomy number ... Let it go on."

As Jud, Mr. Cummings slouched even deeper in the drizzle, in silent despair at the needlessly broken moment. But the storm-hardened audience cheered his dark lament when he sang:

... And her own soft arms keep me warm/And her long yeller hair falls a-crost my face/Jist like the rain in a storm!

Such ovations are not unheard of at the Muny, especially when sung by an obviously gifted performer, and Mr. Cummings sold that little moment as shamelessly as Al Jolson. What's more surprising is that so many love songs reference the rain. And every now and then, this works out to a performer's great advantage at the nation's largest outdoor theater.

Oklahoma! runs through June 24, and the 89th season of the Municipal Opera continues in the vast Forest Park with Grease June 25th, 2007. Shows run Monday through Sunday, and we all sing the National Anthem at 8:15, right before the overture. For more information, visit www.muny.org or call the box-office at (314) 361-1900.

Cast
Aunt Eller: Georgia Engel
Curly: James Clow
Laurey: Catherine Brunell
Will Parker: Dirk Lumbard
Ado Annie Carnes: Leah Hocking
Ali Hakim: Bruce Adler
Andrew "Papa" Carnes: Joneal Joplin
Gertie Cummings: Stephanie Gibson
Jud Fry/Dream Jud: Anthony Cummings
Ike Skidmore: Rich Pisarkiewicz
Dream Laurey: Elena Zahlmann
Dream Curly: Victor J. Wisehart
Cord Elam: Robert Earl Gleason
Slim: Preston Truman Boyd

Ensemble
Brandon Bieber, Darren Biggart, Kyle Brown, Julia Bullock, Sara Dobbs, Dana Domenick, Lois Enders, Neal Frederiksen, Robert Hartwell, Angeline Holmes, Jeffrey Hover Jr., Ashley Krupinski, Nathan Madden, Amanda McCroskery, Mary Catherine McDonald, Halle Morse, Sydney Laine Morton, Liam Rhodes, Karilyn Ashley Surratt, Katya Sussman, Gia Grazia Valenti, Amos Wolff

Crew
Director, Executive Producer: Paul Blake
Original Dances by Agnes de Mille
Choreography Restaged & Adapted by Gemze de Lappe
Musical Direction: Ben Whiteley
Scenic Design: Steve Gilliam
Lighting Design: F. Mitchell Dana
Costumes: Kansas City Costume
Sound Design: Jason Krueger
Production Stage Manager: Nevin Hedley


-- Richard T. Green

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