Theater Review

'Oh, what a beautiful play!' at Trinity

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The classic American musical “Oklahoma!” is now playing at Trinity Rep and it is a wonderful joy to behold. This show is sweet, soulful, soaring and simply sensational. Directed and choreographed by Richard and Sharon Jenkins, this production captures the essence of this timeless and beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein all-American musical story; it sports a rough and ready look, great acting, singing and dancing and has been crafted from the same essential raw materials of this pioneering musical, a lot of heart, spirit and longing.

The set design, by the legendary Eugene Lee, is, like the territory depicted here, both stark and bright. A corral-like wooden scaffolding juts into the audience, here the actors assemble when they’re not onstage reminding us that we’re all in this OK territory together. Onstage is a huge wall festooned with posters of artifacts of the period topped with bold letters that state: “Oklahoma Territory. No Trespassing.” The scenes play out before this façade and this seemingly simple setting creates just the right atmosphere for a grand and intimate extravaganza.

Freed from the artificial trappings of replicating naturalism this setting allows the characters, songs and story to be played first and foremost, right where they belong. This also allows for some nifty and nimble directorial touches. Use a fringed bench for that famous surrey in a musical number? Why not! Director Jenkins doesn’t so much gild the lily as he re-greens the lilac, this is an organic production that, like these pioneers, uses well the unfinished materials at hand.
All this serves to remind us of how much this show is all about the plaintive yearning and longing on the lone prairie where all one surveys is still a work in progress.

“I want something I heard about but never had before”, states Laurie and this need is shared by all we meet right down to Will’s Kansas City souvenir, the ‘little wonder’ viewing scope which depicts pictures of burlesque girls and Ado Annie’s inability to say no, all want something in a place moving from territory to state in a still young nation.

This search for identity and love is, of course, well and joyously told by the sheer scope of all those soaring Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. A familiar classic can sometimes be taken for granted, but it’s a classic for a reason. The well-crafted lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein, exactly and wonderfully, simply tell a magnificent story and get to the heart of matters, while Rodgers' buoyant and rich melodies never fail to touch the heart.

It’s important to note that Hammerstein also wrote the book, the musical’s script, that is, and so the lyrics here are an extension of the story itself, more than mere standards but specific parts of an entire story well told. And all of these great songs are simply wonderfully sung, beautifully and expertly, by the terrific ensemble that Trinity Rep has assembled here.

At the outset of the show, after the dancers flit onstage during a delightfully choreographed overture, we hear the beautifully ringing voice of Charlie Thurston, as Curly, singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’”, a cappella, and his voice is clear as the dawn and fills the room before the nifty little six piece combo of musicians join in. This sweet and striking moment is an apt little metaphor for this entire production, that moves from sweet and simple to grand and soaring in a heartbeat.

In addition to possessing a grand singing voice Mr. Thurston is everything we require or a Curley; this cowboy is both charming and forthright and as headstrong as the broncos he busts. He is quite well matched on stage, for both sweetness and sheer stubbornness, by Rachael Warren as Laurie. Trinity Rep theatergoers know that Ms. Warren has one of the best voices in these parts and can sing up a sweet storm, she doesn’t disappoint here. The actress is both coltish and fiercely heartfelt in the role, seeing her stride onstage and dressed in wrangler duds we know immediately that she’s every inch a match for Curly and their ensuing show-long dance of attraction, tiptoeing towards and shying away from each other is simply magnetic.

Words simply can’t describe just how hilariously delightful Rebecca Gibel is as Ado Annie, she’s a riot as a quivering bundle of desire that seems likely to explode at any moment, her performance just must be seen to be believed and thoroughly enjoyed. Newest Trinity Rep Company member Jude Sandy shines and just seems so good hearted as the lovable lunk Will Parker that you can’t help to cheer him on and he can belt out a tune with the best of them.

As the alternately amorous and timorous peddler Ali Hakim Stephen Thorne was just as dry as milquetoast and I liked too that this ‘Persian’ was an obviously fake fakir, an identity assumed as an advertisement for his exotic wares. Janice Duclos was direct and exact as Aunt Eller and her depiction served to make the character both a cantankerous riot and the moral center of the tale.

Joe Wilson, Jr. is a marvel as Jud Fry. He gives full voice to this character, not only with his rich and powerful singing but manages the near impossible: he makes us care deeply about this troubled and disturbed man. That he is handsome and possesses a naturally magnetic personality onstage doesn’t hurt, but here he is driven and deliberate with an undercurrent of deeply felt need that adds an essential humanity to his villainy. He too, in his “lonely room” is, like the other disparate denizens of this territory, consumed by pure longing. This is the finest portrayal of this character that I’ve ever witnessed.

Sharon Jenkins’ choreography is essentially homespun, simply graceful, and, in the dream ballet, allows for a nod to Agnes DeMille and an acknowledgement of gritty reality underneath the action.

I cannot say anything more about this sweet and soulful show, other than just go see it, you’ll have a grand and joyous time. This is the musical that changed it all in the American theatre, using songs not merely as tuneful breaks for the story, but to tell and propel that story and to provide great insight into the hopes and needs of its characters. Rodgers and Hammerstein brought the change of naturalism to this art form, it is appropriate and wonderful that this show is at Trinity, the regional theater that is always changing and evolving in a production that recognizes, joyfully, that the actual naturalism is in being part of this communal celebration of community. Oh, what a beautiful play!

“Oklahoma!” at Trinity Repertory Company now through June 5. See listings for details.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.