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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Critic's Notebook: An 'Oklahoma' where the bustiers come sweeping down the plain

TO SURREY WITH LOVE: Kelly Chapin Schmidt and Edward McCreary perform in Serenbe Playhouses outdoor production of <em>Oklahoma!</em> Director Brian Clowdus doesnt shy away from some of the shows strange, dark elements.
  • BreeAnne Clowdus
  • TO SURREY WITH LOVE: Kelly Chapin Schmidt and Edward McCreary perform in Serenbe Playhouse's outdoor production of Oklahoma! Director Brian Clowdus doesn't shy away from some of the show's strange, dark elements.
Brushing a bit of dust off an old classic is director Brian Clowdus' aim with Serenbe Playhouse's latest show, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! running through Aug. 17. It's an outdoor production which utilizes a real barn as its backdrop: Curly enters on horseback (it's set in rural Oklahoma after all), and the protagonists ride away in the much sung about, but customarily seldom seen surrey with the fringe on top.

The show is mostly a straightforward, capable production of a winning classic, but Clowdus also cleverly teases out some of the story's sinister, enigmatic, and erotic elements (In Oklahoma! who'd have thunk?). It's certainly always seemed that there's more to Laurey's feelings for Jud than what she lets on. And isn't taunting a lonely outsider about suicide kind of creepy and cruel, even by the standards of romantic rivalry? And doesn't that "He fell on his own knife!" at the end sound just a tad bit fishy? These questions tend to come to mind at even the most cheerfully gung-ho production of Oklahoma!, and what's nice about the Serenbe show is that it keeps that quality (and then some) but doesn't shy away from the story's dark corners. This Oklahoma has beautiful mornings and wind-swept plains, sure, but it also has nooses, bustiers, and knife-fights. The smokehouse is appropriately sinister, even hellish (with gallons of stage smoke), and the dream sequence that ends Act I is fittingly dark and erotic, more Cabaret than Disney-princess.

SMOKED OUT: Bryant Smith as Jud and Edward McCreary as Curly in Serenbe Playouse's Oklahoma!
  • BreeAnne Clowdus
  • SMOKED OUT: Bryant Smith as Jud and Edward McCreary as Curly in Serenbe Playouse's Oklahoma!
Clowdus has assembled a cast full of Atlanta's best and brightest: Edward McCreary makes the eponymous "Beautiful Morning" sound especially fine, and Kelly Chapin Schmidt as Laurey conveys that character's transformation from tomboy to bride. They sound great together on "People Will Say We're in Love," making the whole thing kind of wistful in a lovely way. Bryant Smith is a dangerously brooding, frightening, but also strangely attractive Jud: one begins to understand why Laurey's feelings about him may be so complicated. Austin Tijerina is a standout as a scrappy, gymnastic Will Parker, and he and his posse of cowboys performing the brash, athletic moves of choreographer Bubba Carr are one of the show's best elements: they're responsible for the over-arching exuberant, youthfully fit, slim boot-cut feel of the thing. Laila Cochran makes a funny, but no-nonsense Aunt Eller. When it's time to dance and sing at the box social, she's the one making sure everyone does it and has a good time, even if it's at gun point.

Since the production includes the innovation of having the musicians out of view, it would have been nice to bring the audience closer, but the seating area is still separated from the stage by an orchestra-sized gap. It keeps the perspective grand and panoramic, but more intimacy might have suited the new approach. In the end, not a whole lot happens in Oklahoma!, and it takes almost three hours not to happen. Older musicals are long by contemporary standards, and with the drive from Atlanta to Serenbe, it can make for a lengthy, if pleasant, evening. Still, Serenbe Playhouse'sOklahoma! is a show that rewards the journey with a production that's both innovative and in touch with all the old-fashioned elements that have made the show such a classic.

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