Friday, July 15, 2011

Reagle goes back to its roots

Rie Ogura and Joshua Andino Nieto as Laurie and Curly in the "dream ballet."

Anyone in the Boston area who cares about musical theatre will want to be one place this weekend: in the auditorium at Waltham High School, where the Reagle Music Theatre will be presenting a kind of resurrection of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic Oklahoma!.

Reagle has always been known for an attitude that some have called a hide-bound reverence for tradition; the company aims to present musicals from Broadway's golden age (even Sondheim counts as edgy for them!) in as close a form as possible to the original. They even aim for the original, enormous cast sizes - to do so, Reagle generally brings in Broadway stars for the leads, but fills out the ranks with local community theatre types. (60 performers were listed in the program for Oklahoma!.)

Of course this is the kind of thing - a frank appreciation of masterpieces - that would give someone like Bob Brustein apoplexy. Which is why you should feel very sorry for him. Because I have to say that while I have often felt like slitting my wrists at an ART show, just so that I wouldn't have to endure one more second of their patented morbid, pseudo-intellectual pretentiousness (now, of course, I feel the same way, only to avoid their newly patented pseudo-intellectual crassness), I've never been really sorry that I saw a Reagle show.

Sure, often one of these Waltham productions will boast a great turn by its featured star, but will be a little sloppy around the edges. I admit it. But that's not the case with Oklahoma!, because Reagle has really done its homework this time - or rather has borrowed the homework of the University of North Carolina, which scrupulously re-produced (from archival photos, costume swaths, and surviving plans) the "look and feel" of the 1943 Broadway production for one of its student shows. Reagle has rented all of that material, and has also had the good sense to hire as choreographer the legendary Gemze de Lappe, who danced in that 1943 production and eventually became a kind of ambassador-at-large for the work of Agnes de Mille.

All this alone would make this Oklahoma! a destination evening for musical theatre junkies. The sets and costumes are striking (and done up in eye-popping polka dots and plaids that all but scream the highly-keyed sense of fantasy that flourished in the 40's). The choreography is likewise rendered quite well - if, in the end, we must admit that in the "dream ballet" (at top) and elsewhere de Mille reveals that she really was no Balanchine (whose own work for Broadway I wish somebody would revive).

But the good news is that the stars once again are shining at Reagle. This production boasts a dynamically romantic Curly in Stephen Mark Lukas (who for some reason hasn't yet landed a lead on Broadway), and he's nearly matched by newcomer Eliza Xenakis, who sings like a prairie songbird but unfortunately is a bit stiff dramatically here and there (with Lukas, at left). But to be honest, both are sometimes overshadowed by the remarkable Doug Jabara as their nemesis, the menacing farmhand Judd. Mr. Jabara lacks the physical stature casting directors usually demand for this role, but he compensates with remarkable intensity and a chillingly powerful low baritone (and somehow, from the way he all but licks his chops in some scenes, I think Jabara knows that in this case, the villain is by far the best role in the show).

There's more fine work around the edges of the production from local luminary Ellen Peterson as the sunny Aunt Eller, and Todd Yard as the wily peddler, Ali Hakim. Meanwhile, in the famous role of Ado Annie (the "girl who can't say no"), Reagle has cast another appealing singer in Maggie McNeil, who's got just the right presence for the part, but who also isn't yet a highly skilled physical performer (but somehow you don't really care, McNeil is such a kick).

I'm also happy to report that director Holly-Anne Ruggiero knows how to keep a show this size moving without getting in the way, and choreographer de Lappe actually does her best work in the big hoe-down number, which all but two-steps right off the stage. To be honest, the structure of the show will be forever lumpy (both acts end oddly). But what can you say about the score? Well, you can say this: "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin',"The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," "I Cain't Say No," and especially the gorgeous "People Will Say We're in Love" - this isn't a score, it's a hit parade, and it's beautifully sung here (and under the capable baton of Jeffrey P. Leonard, the orchestra sounds fine, too). Right now we seem to be floating in a kind of golden musical moment in Boston - I couldn't believe I was watching this so soon after The Most Happy Fella up in Gloucester. But I was. And you can too, at least until Sunday.

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