Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Feb. 9, 2001
Oklahoma!: New Territory
through February 11
Running Time: 2 hrs, 45 min
Somewhere on the open prairie, a pony is running. No fences cross the horizon to hem it in, no rider straddles its back to burden or restrain it; it belongs to itself, free to roam the broad land, to race the wind, to give free rein to its youthful vigor. And it is a thing of beauty; to see this creature is to be exhilarated by its physicality and grace and vitality, its spirit of independence, of open territory, of living unbound by limits. And to see it is to know the spirit of Austin Musical Theatre's production of Oklahoma!
From the moment Fred Barton raises his baton, this AMT show pulses with a rousing liveliness. Under the smoothly expert musical direction we've come to expect from Barton, the orchestra serves up the overture with sprightly enthusiasm. They are our passage into Rodgers & Hammerstein's winning vision of pre-statehood Oklahoma and carry us there with the friskiness of that free-ranging colt. The landscape turns out to be very much about the landscape, with Christopher McCollum, in yet another of his ingenious set designs, reinforcing our sense of the vast frontier with great maps that back and frame the action. Rendered in bold azure, they provide a vivid, dreamlike sky that delineates the new world being carved out by a band of resolute and hardy pioneers.
And a resolute and hardy band they prove to be. Kevin Earley's Curly is nothing if not cocky; the natural state for this fair-haired cowpoke seems to be arms akimbo, ready to take on the whole territory. But then his voice can turn as smooth and sweet as milk fresh from the cow. Earley modulates these opposing qualities nicely, allowing us to see the heart that beats beneath the ranchhand's bluster. As Laurey, the young filly that Curly's working so hard to corral, Anneliese van der Pol sports the dark mane of a wild mustang -- and more than a little of that animal's defiant spirit. Her stride is long and purposeful -- you can see in it that she and Louisa Flaningam's feisty Eller are kin -- and she bristles at any suggestion of being reined in by a man. She won't be broken. This spunk gives an appealing tension to her early sparring with Curly and adds an invigorating edge to the sweetness of "Many a New Day" and "People Will Say We're in Love." She may dream of romance and possess the voice of an angel, which the 16-year-old van der Pol gloriously does, but this Laurey, like her aunt, is a woman of the frontier, her own person, strong of body and mind. She'll only settle for a man that suits her just fine.
That man will never be Eller's burly farmhand Jud, the territory's first stalker. But in portraying the character, Raymond Jaramillo McLeod -- with a voice so deep, he might be drillin' for oil -- balances Jud's troubled, unsettling quality with a readily apparent pain, a frustration and resentment that keep his humanity clear. McLeod's delivery of "Lonely Room" reveals Jud's deepest thoughts in a roar of anguish, and in "Poor Jud Is Daid," he and Kevin Earley also get to show the man in a humorous light, with a rendition that delightfully exploits the song's comic potential.
These characters and a host of others -- notably Tari Kelly's buoyant good-time gal Ado Annie; Jamie Rocco's sly fox of a peddler man, Ali Hakim; Jill Blackwood's giddily trampy Gertie Cummings -- populate this musical fantasy West with vibrant personalities long on independent thinking and pioneer grit. Their verve and drive comes across as fresh as, well, that wind that comes right behind the rain. That may never be more clear than when Noah Racey's ebullient Will Parker joyfully hoofs his way through "Kansas City," and it seems like the song is brand-spanking-new, never performed before. That this story we've heard so often, that we know so well, should look so fresh comes as a wondrous surprise. It isn't just the shiny, young faces and voices that make it fresh. It's the spirit with which these artists inhabit the characters, express their feelings in song and dance, tell this story, that make this beloved classic so fresh.
That, of course, is a tribute to the continually amazing leaders of AMT, Scott Thompson and Richard Byron. Their direction and choreography, their skill in uniting these artists (including the gifted costume designer Susan Branch and lighting designer Tony Tucci), their inspired vision for this company, and their rigorous pursuit of that vision, are the spirit that drives that pony across the open prairie, that makes it such a thing of beauty. Their Oklahoma! is a territory that is a joy to visit, a land that is, as the song says, grand.