Column Review: OKLAHOMA!

Here is the review published today by John Garcia’s The Column.  Congratulations to my amazing cast.  This is a testament of your outstanding work.  Thanks for an incredible show.  ~Brad   

Theater review: Oklahoma! at Artisan Center Theater in Hurst

by Lyle Huchton of John Garcia’s The Column  

The energy and spirit of this cast of ACT’s Oklahoma! produced an end result that was miraculous. 

Editor’s note: The press photos provided have Amanda Gupton and Zeke Branim as Laurey and Curly, respectively. However, in the reviewed performance, Brad Stephens played Curly.

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In the early spring of 1943 opened a new musical that would make its mark on theater history. Based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs, this American “Folk Opera” pushed realism and reality to the forefront. It refused using the popular stage tactics of sight gags and scantily clad dancers. It instead focused on ballet by employing one of the leading choreographers of the time, Agnes De Mille. Producers held their breath on opening night almost positive that they had a flop on their hands. But the inspired music by Richard Rodgers and the fresh words of Oscar Hammerstein II won over audiences and critics alike. Lucky for us here in the metroplex we have Artisan Center Theater in Hurst to take aim at the target and mostly hit the mark with their version of Oklahoma! (playing through June 19). 

Director Dennis Canright did exactly what he should have with this script. He let it speak for itself. And judging from the response it got from an almost-packed house on Saturday night, he did the right thing. I am convinced this Oklahoma would ring a pure note if compared to that first premiere over 60 years ago. 

Aunt Eller (Linda Much) is on the porch of her homestead churning butter when we overhear someone singing, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” It is no other than Curly McLain (Brad Stephens) happening by to invite Laurey (Amanda Gupton) to be his date to the picnic box gathering. I have to be honest that I am no fan of a music track for a musical. I understand the practicality of one, especially this form of “canned music” in a theater as small as Artisan’s. There is no place to put an orchestra. But a music track always presents a problem with timing and that is exactly what happened here.   

In that first number and the one to follow, “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” I was tapping my foot in hopes that it would somehow help increase the tempo. Not only was it too slow but the track was so loud that it overpowered the singer. Not a very good way to start. 

However … all that was about to change. Bursting onto the stage like a pack of wild broncos is Will Parker (Drew Davis) and the rest of the male dance ensemble which included Nathan Smith, Tevin Cates, and Edward Ciaran Masen. 

Whoopin’ and hollarin’ and doing more hitch-kicks than The Kilgore Rangerettes, these boys with the help of Eddie Floresca’s lively choreography, pumped up the life back into this production with an energetic performance in the number, “Kansas City.”   

Drew Davis is excellent here in his role as Will. With controlled abandonment, he throws himself into the part and brings to light what I feel is Will’s message: Finding out the difference between a man’s worth and his value. 

Delivering one of the musicals most well known songs is Lacy Lambert as Ado Annie Carnes with “I Can’t Say No.” Lamenting over her inability to deny a man anything he asks for. She can’t seem to make up her mind over Will or her present suitor the peddler Ali Hakim (Jason Leyva). Miss Lambert brings such an innocence to Ado Annie you can’t help but fall in love with her.   

Mr. Leyva’s Ali Hakim is an example of the supporting cast’s commitment and talent. His characterization is completely fleshed out and believable. 

Now it is the girls’ dance and voice ensemble to take their turn at bat. Lead here by Miss Gupton (Laurey) the ladies hit a home run with a lovely rendition of “Many a New Day.”   

Curly and Laurey now decide that maybe they should go to the social together but need to be discreet as to not cause others to talk. They express their sentiments clearly in “People Will Say We’re in Love.” This upbeat and flirtatious song ended on a sad note that left me perplexed. 

Curly has to go inform Jud Fry (David Plybon) that he has lost his date to the gathering. Mr. Plybon plays against type and delivers a nicely understated, misunderstood Jud. Plybon and Stephens produce some of the best vocals of the evening with “Poor Jud” and “Lonely Room.”   

Closing out the end of the first act is a dance sequence famously known as “The Dream Ballet,” in which Laurie falls sleep and dreams of what her future would be like if she married Curly. 

Most productions use a dancer or “Dream Laurey” to perform this ballet. Miss Gupton was cast to dance this role. This decision helped clear up what is actually going on in this number. However I felt that this was one of the few places in this production that either needs to be tightened up or shaved down. There was no real focus and it played way too long.   

Act two starts off with another spirited song and dance number “The Farmer and the Cowmen” that also kicks off the auction of the food boxes for the picnic. The ensemble pulls out all the stops and shows once again that they are the driving force behind this production. Not before mentioned, there are other outstanding performances within this cast that include Linda Much as Aunt Eller, Gale McCray as Andrew Carnes, Meredith Stowe as Gertie Cummings, and Oliva Lamke for her dancing in “The Dream Ballet.” 

And of course, to top off the this well known R&H classic was the rousing title song “Oklahoma!” which was sung with full gusto by the full company.   

When I first sat down and got a good look at the set I was astounded. I was surrounded by a large expanse of blue sky with gold and green pastures all around me. It was like as if some one plopped me down in the middle of a field, next to a farmhouse, by a water tower. Scenic designers Dennis Canright and Jason Leyva smartly placed the larger pieces of the set in the corners. This allowed the center of the playing area to remain open for the action and the dancing. The design was enhanced by the beautiful scenic painting of Lilly Strapp and Michelle McElree. 

The daunting task of having to costume not only one cast but two (Artisan tends to double cast their productions) fell upon costume designer Nita Cadenhead. Just to let some of you know who do not pay attention to costumes as I do exactly what she was facing.   

*Editor’s full disclosure: Mr. Huchton is an award-winning costume designer who has designed for many companies, such as for the Dallas Opera and the Dallas Children’s Theater. For television he has earned two Emmy Award nominations for costume design for the TV series Barney

Take a cast of 30 times two — that would make 60 costumes to create. Then add two other changes for Laurey (including a bustle wedding dress) another change for Curly and Aunt Eller and about six or more for the ballet number and the total would be around 70 plus any added accessories. That’s quite a lot, huh?   

I am getting on my soap box a bit here because I can not help as to wonder why the costumes in this musical production looked like an afterthought in compassion to the other design elements (i.e. scenic, lighting, sound, etc.). Just something to think about… 

The second cast of ACT’s Oklahoma! may produce an altogether different experience. But if the same energy and spirit are brought to the table as the cast I observed Saturday night, then the end result will be as miraculous as the one I watched. 

Brad Stephens performs Tuesday, Thrusday and Saturday evenings.

I will be performing every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evening of the run through June 26, 2010.  Performances are subject to change so keep an eye on my event calendar for my up-to-the-minute schedule.  However, both casts are wonderful so come out and see the show when you can!  In fact, why not see it twice? 

Showtimes are Monday, Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday evenings at 7:30 PM with Saturday matinees at 3:00 PM (see calendar at right).  Click here for a map to the theater as Mapquest and Google Maps may mislead you.  Tickets are available at the box-office or by calling (817) 284-1200.  You may also buy tickets online at the Artisan Center Theater website – www.artisanct.com.  Coupons for discounts on tickets can be acquired by clicking the Feature Actor Card below.  Print them out and distribute them to your friends!

Get discounts on tickets!

Click here, print these out and give them to your friends for ticket discounts!

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