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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Shakespeare? I Came To See Some Singing and Dancing - Reviews of Oklahoma! and My One And Only at the Stratford Festival

Oklahoma! - Festival Theatre - Stratford Festival - Stratford, ON
My One and Only - Avon Theatre - Stratford Festival - Stratford, ON

So I go all the way to Stratford and instead of seeing Shakespeare, uh, I go see the two musicals they are offering this season. I mean, they are even renaming the Stratford Festival to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival later this year. But what can I do? I like it when random singing happens. Just like in real life!

Oklahoma! is of course the classic 1943 musical from Rogers and Hammerstein (their first collaboration together) about cowboy Curly (my fave Dan Chameroy) wooing (and really, wooing is the most appropriate word here) Laurey (Blythe Wilson), but Laurey for some reason seems to go for Jud (David W. Keeley), the loner farm hand. That's pretty much the plot, add in some psychoanalytics of Jud as the id and Curly as the ego, a "wild" girl Ado Annie (Lindsay Thomas) who can't decide between good boy Will Parker (an excellent Kyle Blair) and exotic Persian travelling salesman Ali Hakim (Jonathan Ellul), some slightly dated themes on feminism and sexuality (or more like, now stereotyped to death in the 21st century), and we have the bases for Oklahoma!. A quaint little musical about the countryside, with farmers and cowboys, surreys (now I know what a surrey is) and ducks and geese and so on.

So what can I say about some of these "classics"? I'm finding that a lot of times, I will see these "classics" and be bored, slightly offended, or mildly entertained but not moved. Oklahoma! falls into the last category. Classic simple love story but I never REALLY got the Jud character (even in the National Theatre version with Hugh Jackman shown on PBS), because Jud seems so fleshed out to represent the BAD and DEVIANCY in sexual behaviour that I kinda feel sorry for him in these times. As we would say now, he's misunderstood. They paint Jud as such a villain while the cocky Curly wins the girl, Ali Hakim is of course scheming while good ol' white boy Will Parker is the bland simpleton that we know will win Ado's heart, it's all rather un-PC in a post PC times (or is that PC in an un-PC time? I can't even tell anymore). Which means it should work again, except, it sort of doesn't for me. I wasn't offended, I just wasn't moved emotionally and I kind of require that now from a good musical.

Luckily, the production is amazingly done and I've been a big fan of Dan Chameroy since he so slickly played the Wolf/Prince in the CanStage production of Into the Woods years ago (hmm, he was Gaston to Kerry Butlers's Belle in Beauty and the Beast in Toronto? Kerry Butler was in Toronto?). If he were on Broadway, he would be a MUCH BIGGER star by now. The handsome guy is musical comedy gold, and he was a great Curly. David W. Keeley (Toronto and Broadway's original Sam in Mamma Mia, Officer Lockstock in the CanStage's Urinetown) made the most of Jud, but again, I've never really understood the character (or at least cared for him). Kyle Blair was a surprise making Will Parker as fully rounded and funny as he could, and had some amazing dance tricks up his sleeve (and roping techniques). In fact, the entire company kicked up a storm, which I did not really expect from Stratford (even though I know they've been milking the musicals for the last while now). Nora McLellan was a great Aunt Eller and again, the rest of the cast continued Stratford's image of great actors. It's an enjoyable classic musical, that especially starts off strong because of the beautiful classics "Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'", "The Surrey With the Fringe On The Top" and "Kansas City". It muddles a bit in the middle but then is truly enjoyable again in Act 2 with "The Farmer and the Cowman" and of course, "Oklahoma!", all which the Stratford company does an rousing great job of singing and dancing to. Which makes again for a conundrum in my review. How do you review a great production of a show when I only like the actual musical so-so?

It becomes even more difficult after seeing My One and Only. At least Oklahoma! is in the canon of great American classics and I can see at the time of it's incarnation in 1943, that it was a revolutionary thing for the musical theatre. My One and Only is a cute trifle of a musical, one I had never heard of, and basically an early version of the jukebox musical that stole from within the theatre. My One and Only premiered in 1983 and basically took Gershwin songs and re-arranged it with a bare thread of a storyline, probably as a vehicle for the original stars, Tommy Tune and Twiggy (yes. THAT Twiggy. I didn't realise she COULD sing or dance).

The story is barely existent and a bit ridiculous, the characters are completely stock characters. You know when the Narrator notes of all those long forgotten musicals he loves that were meant only really for an evening's worth of entertainment in The Drowsy Chaperone? All before playing "The Drowsy Chaperone", itself a semi-ridiculous light diversion of a musical? My One and Only IS one of those musicals. Except without the added Narrator to make sarcastic remarks upon it. Entertaining while watching it. Forgotten within days. So it's odd that Stratford chose this musical to produce while they have a huge catalog to choose from. Or maybe it was just a vehicle to showcase Cynthia Dale? Stratford's only female "star". And by star I mean someone Canadian who has been on a Canadian TV show that lasted a few years and is thus sort of recognizable (plus she married The National's anchor Peter Mansbridge (oddly handsome and sexy in person btw. Who would have guessed? Cause it sure does NOT translate on TV) so that always helps keep the fame alive in Canada).

Cynthia Dale DOES show off quite a bit though, and is an incredibly impressive dancer. Who knew she could be such a hoofer? How old is she? She was the bitchy lawyer on Street Legal (with JAG's David Elliot Smith) when I was growing up. Isn't she like. OLD? But man, she can TAP. And along with Laird Mackintosh, the two lead a tap dancing cast that click and clack away on the polished floor in this Art Deco styled musical. It's been a long time since I've seen a purely 40's styled toe tapping dancing musical (the last one must have been the OTHER Gershwin mishmash musical Crazy For You, though that at least had a better storyline and more of their famous songs) but while it's light on the story, it's truly fun to watch the dancing. That makes Stratford 2 for 2 now on the impressive dancing quality for their shows. Who knew they weren't just about "To be or Not To Be"?

So again, another mediocre musical that is performed excellently by the company of Stratford. Even more impressive are the actors who appear in BOTH shows, including David W. Keeley again (very funny as the Evil Prince Nikki in My One and Only) and Kyle Blair again (who is relegated to a smaller role, but with even more impressive dancing in MOAO). My One and Only is a kind of reincarnation of Funny Face and while I haven't seen that, I'm thinking, why wouldn't they have done that musical instead? Still, entertaining and the tap dancing on water (yes, WATER) is truly fun to watch.

Here's some other reviews that almost all seemed to love Oklahoma! (maybe I just don't get "classics"?)
- The Globe and Mail
- The Star
- Variety (although it's the same reviewer as The Star)
- The London Free Press
- The Associated Press via The Washington Post
- Now Toronto (This review pretty much nails my thoughts, only in much fewer words and thus, far more succinct than my run on sentences)

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