Review: ‘Oklahoma!’ a gem at UH-Manoa
REVIEW BY JOHN BERGER / email@example.com
The UH-Manoa theater program rarely presents musicals on the Kennedy Theatre mainstage. When it does, they are usually Asian — Chinese opera in English, or something Japanese or Indonesian.
Presented by the UH-Manoa Department of Theatre and Dance
» Where: Kennedy Theatre, UH-Manoa
That makes the current mainstage production of “Oklahoma!” a welcome change of pace for a couple of reasons. Aside from being a great opportunity for the students to delve into traditional American theater, the show’s cast and production values are of a quality that would do credit to any of our community theater companies.
Scenic Designer Donald Quilinquin’s minimalist set pieces suffice to define the various locales without requiring the traditional downtime needed for set changes; members of the cast make the changes in seconds. Less set also means more room for movement. Dance Choreographer Cindy Hartigan fills the stage with colorfully costumed characters in the big musical numbers — “Kansas City,” “Many a New Day” and “The Farmer and the Cowboy” in particular. Dream Dance Choreographer Harmony S.L. Aguilera’s staging of the iconic “Dream Dance” is a masterpiece of dramatic dance in which violence and eroticism rise to the fore.
The show also benefits from director Lurana Donnels O’Malley casting choices. Brandon Gregory Martinez (Curly) makes a winning impression with “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and maintains it thereafter as a singer, actor and dancer. Karissa J. Murrell Adams (Laurey) is the other half of a cute and believable couple. Whether performing with Martinez (“The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” “People Will Say We’re in Love”) or with “the women” in “Many a New Day” Adams has star-quality stage presence as well as a good strong voice.
Adams’ moments with Garett T.K. Taketa (Jud Fry) in “Dream Dance” show that she is an expressive and sensual dancer as well.
Walt Gaines (Ali Hakim) is a great choice as the wiley tom-catting peddler. He teams up with Robbie Johnson (Will Parker) and Brittni Michele Shambaugh (Ado Annie) as a solid comic team to play out the romantic complications that develop when the peddler gets trapped between a ditsy farmer’s daughter and the cowboy who wants to marry her. Johnson stands tall and noble as the naive and honorable cowboy — and does a fine job vocally in his two key musical numbers. Shambaugh, an animated physical comedienne, was an audience favorite on opening night as the girl who “can’t say no.”
Gaines earned a well-deserved round of mid-show applause on opening night for his work with Johnson and Shambaugh in the scene where the peddler shows Annie how Persians say “good bye.”
Director O’Malley makes two interesting choices in her approach to this 1943-vintage Broadway classic. One is making Curly seem almost as dim a bulb as Will. The other is having Taketa play Fry as a tragic, almost romantic anti-hero rather than the malevolent loner, stalker or psychopath seen in some other stagings of the story. Fry is the most complex character in the story anyway, and in revealing the different sides of Fry’s pyche Taketa creates a portrait of a tortured soul.
“Lonely Room” becomes more a cry of despair than a sullen vow of violence — and even before that, Curly’s unnecessary visit seems a needless provocation and his thinly veiled suggestion that Fry commit suicide (“Pore Jud is Daid”) cruel and sardonic albeit it also darkly funny. Taketa has steadily developed his stage skills in a series of character roles at Diamond Head Theatre in recent years — his performance here as a leading man is a memorable break-through for him.
Looking beyond the three stellar leads and the three versatile supporting actors, Michael “Donut” Donato (Andrew Carnes) earns acclaim with for his work with Gaines and Shambaugh in the scene where the peddler first encounters Ado Annie’s shotgun-wielding father. Donato plays the father as a comic figure rather than a menacing one.
Paul T. Mitri’s fight scene choreography provides the appropriate visual impact to the brawl between the farmers and the cowboys, and draws on the athleticism of Shambaugh and Erin McFadden (Gertie Cummings) for the cat fight between Ado Annie and her rival. Mitri’s choreography of Martinez and Taketa in their fight scene adds the final touches to Taketa’s memorable portrayal of the designated villain of the story.
The opening night performance was marred by occasional microphone problems, but there were no problems with the volume of the singers’ voices versus Musical Director Phil Hidalgo’s orchestra. The orchestra was never too loud or too soft, and the vocalists’ work could always be heard and appreciated.
Fans of Rodgers & Hammerstein — and of classic Broadway musicals in general — should be sure to catch O’Malley’s “Oklahoma!” during its three-weekend run.
John Berger has been a mainstay in the local entertainment scene for nearly 40 years. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.