What a relief! After last year’s traumatic suspension of Theatre Under the Stars and the devastating winter storms, it’s great to be back at Malkin Bowl on a perfect July evening, experiencing Oklahoma! in the spectacular surroundings of Stanley Park.
And what a way to begin again, with Richard Rodgers’ wonderfully melodious overture seguing into two of his and Oscar Hammerstein’s best songs, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” and “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.”
TUTS has always been about the outdoor environment and the energetic enthusiasms of its large young casts as much as the talent and slickness of its productions. Oklahoma! provides large portions of all these qualities. But its evocations of rural Americana in 1902 challenge contemporary audiences used to the rock ‘n roll nostalgia of shows like Grease, playing here on alternate nights. Director Shel Piercy sometimes overcompensates by pushing his actors into cartoonish comic excess.
Set in Oklahoma a few years before it achieved statehood, the story centres on the courtship of manly cowboy Curly (Mat Baker) and farm girl Laurey (Jayme Armstrong) on the farm of Laurey’s no-nonsense Aunt Eller (Kimberly Page). All three are strong actors. Baker and Armstrong have excellent voices and can dance, too. Their romance, sweetly captured in the duet “People Will Say We’re in Love,” is threatened by psycho farmhand Jud (a fine Kevin Michael Cripps), but all will be well.
Things go a little over the top in the subplots. Squeaky-voiced sexpot Ado Annie (Melissa Oei) just “Cain’t Say No” to either extremely goofy cowboy Will (Rnold Smith) or Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Ryan Egan). Oie, a charismatic young actress with genuine star quality, could be about 20% less mannered. Smith compensates for his weaknesses with some excellent dancing in his big number, “Everything’s up to Date in Kansas City.” Navigating around a very broad ethnic stereotype and showing great comic range, Egan wins over the audience with the sheer verve of his Ali, the charming lecher.
The chorus of more than thirty shines in the big production numbers, although sometimes it lacks restraint. Keep an eye out for the impressive stunts of the farhand with long red hair (Mike Kovac).
Shelley Stewart Hunt does a nice job choreographing Agnes de Mille’s original dances, especially the spectacular Dream Ballet. Francesca Albertazzi’s farmyard set and Chris Sinosich’s period costumes are first-rate. Musical director/conductor Wendy Bross Stuart works hard to keep her large orchestra and the onstage singers in synch.
When the entire company delivers the stirring, rip-roaring title song at the end, you just know that summer in Vancouver doesn’t get much better than this.