Berkshire Theatre Group's 'Oklahoma!': American spirit sings and dances


PITTSFIELD -- Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" is about people who embody the American spirit.

It's about a place with plenty of heart and plenty of hope; a place where, as the song lyrics say, "the wind comes sweeping down the plain" and "the waving wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain."

There's a surrey with some fringe on top, farmers, cattle ranchers, singing, a ballet and various love triangles.

It's about resilience; about picking up the pieces and moving on with life, as are the present-day Oklahomans whose lives have been overturned by massive deadly tornadoes that left little in their wake.

"This show is an embolismic way to describe the United States as a whole. It leads to such wonderful places in the American musical," said Eric Hill, who is directing Berkshire Theatre Group's production of this American theater classsic, opening Saturday evening at the Colonial Theatre after a week of previews.

The show is scheduled to run through July 20. Donations to help the tornado victims will be accepted at the box office before and after each performance.

Set in the Oklahoma Territory in 1906, "Oklahoma!" features several love stories. There is jealousy, misdirection and, as Hill said in an interview, "Shakespearean meddling."

The main story revolves around the conflict between Curly McLain, a cowboy in love with an independent young woman named Laurey Williams, and Jud Fry, who is obsessed with Laurey and works as a hired hand for her aunt Eller.

Hill said it was impossible not to look back the history of award-winning performances of this much-produced musical. What he didn't want to do, however, was deliver a stock carbon copy.

"You don't ignore the road map, but rather let it guide you and pay attention to the surroundings before you," Hill said.

Hill's vision, and that of his creative team -- choreographer Gerry McIntyre and music director Stephen Freeman, who all worked together on last season's "A Chorus Line" and 2011's "The Who's Tommy" at the Colonial -- embraces color-blind casting.

"That's what America looks like now, what Oklahoma looks like now," Hill said. "When people look at the stage they should see that reflection. We're not making any kind of statement by not having an all-white cast, it's just that talent comes in all different shapes, sizes and colors."

Jarid Faubel, who plays the part of Curly, said he was encouraged by Hill's idea on how to "breathe new life" into this 1943 musical.

"Eric is really letting us explore the characters and let us develop our own versions, to rely on the characters' senses and natural movement instead of the actors," he said.

Matt Gibson said he never got to play Will Parker in any of the five "Oklahoma!" productions he's been in so he was excited when Hill cast him in the role of the amorous cowboy who is determined to win the heart of Ado Annie.

Gibson said he also wanted to be part of this production because, he said, "this is certainly not a stock production. Everything is motivated, nothing done just because. It's a gritty piece of theater."

To achieve the subtlety he wants, Hill has made some alterations. The famous ballet in which Laurey's dream of what it would be like to be married to Curly quickly becomes a nightmare when Jud appears is an example.

McIntyre said that sequence was one of the most difficult pieces he's ever had to put together.

"The dance has to arrive at just the right moment to appear natural and organic," he said. "If not, it loses the moment."

That natural and organic quality is the goal of the production, Hill says.

"When the characters burst out into song, it's because they can't go forward with just dialogue anymore," he said. "It has to be because mere words can't express what they're feeling and they just have to sing it. This is a story told through dance, music and dialogue."

On stage

What: "Oklahoma!" Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on the play "Green Grow the Lilacs" by Lynn Riggs

Who: Berkshire Theatre Group

When: Tonight through July 20. Press opening -- 8 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $65-$25

How: (413) 997-4444; (413) 298-5576;; at the box office -- Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield or Fitzpatrick Main Stage, 83 E. Main St., Stockbridge


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