In the final episode of the final season of Slings & Arrows, we hear that the evil corporate type who has taken over the festival is going to direct a production of Oklahoma! the next season. That decision is supposed to encapsulate everything that is wrong with Richard Smith-Jones’ approach to theater. I don’t know whether the writers of that show knew about the 2007 Stratford Festival season when they wrote their final episode (S&A is a thinly-veiled parody of Stratford), but if they didn’t then they certainly got lucky with their little quip, as this year’s big musical at the Festival Theater is, indeed, Oklahoma! And a fine production it is, too! Let’s all put on our exclamation points and step lively! Yee-haw!
Seriously, though, Oklahoma! poses a challenge for me as a reviewer because it marries a story so thin it almost doesn’t exist to a collection of knockout classic tunes and fabulous dance numbers. No feuding families or crossed stars keep our lovers apart; they are just too proud to admit their plainly obvious affection for one another. Nor is their any meaningful tension as to the outcome of the secondary love-story, between the none-too-bright cowboy Will Parker and Ado Annie, The Girl Who Cain’t Say No. Nor is there any ambiguity about the villain of the piece, Jud Fry; we know who he is the minute we meet him, and he stays that way throughout. Even his attempt to derail the happy ending never rises to the level of plot; the whole episode lasts about a minute and a half, and then our newlyweds are sent on their way.
But you know, a lot of grand opera is pretty simple story-wise, too. And just how deep are the characters in La Boheme, anyhow?
Here’s what I can say: if Donna Feore made a false move with this production, I missed it. Every performer was at the top of his or her game, but especialy loud applause was to David Keeley as Jud Fry and Kyle Blair as Will Parker (and not just because he was winking at our son half a dozen times during the show). Dan Chameroy was effortlessly charming as Curley, Lindsay Thomas was adorable as Ado Annie, and Jonathan Ellul actually made the lame joke that is Ali Hakim walk again, even caper about as if it were young again. And the supporting cast of it seemed like dozens of leaping cowboys and spinning cowgirls deserve a round of applause all their own.
But what I have to highlight most of all, because you won’t see its like again, at least not next year, is the staging. Donna Feore got it with this one: she makes full use of the thrust stage that goes right down to the audience, and all the way around, something near to 270 degrees. It’s a totally different platform from a proscenium, and there is something extraordinarily special about the intimacy that you can achieve in a big-budget musical on that stage. We were seated in the front row, for our young son’s sake, and really, you don’t just feel close; you feel like you’re part of the show; when a couple of cowboys are doing a bit of business in front of us during a song, it’s like we’re part of their little conversation, we’re also part of the supporting cast. And I’m sure the actors feel the same way about the audience, and draw that much more from them when the audience is with them.
Next year, there will be no musical mounted on the Festival stage. Stratford will still program two musicals – The Music Man and Cabaret, as it happens – but both will be put on at the Avon, the second-largest stage at Stratford, and a traditional proscenium house. Now, I’ve seen musicals there, as well as straight plays, and it’s a wonderful space. And I understand that the new directorate wants to establish firmly the centrality of Shakespeare to the Festival, as well they should, and one way they are doing that is by restricting the Festival stage to productions of Shakespeare. But I like seeing Shakespeare in a variety of venues – many of my favorite productions at Stratford were not, in fact, Festival stage productions. And I don’t think it’s a terrible thing to devote one slot out of four at the main stage to a musical production, when you can do so much with a musical on that stage that can’t be done at the Avon.
Well, I’ve quibbled with Stratford’s musical offerings over the years, though usually my quibble has been with the shows they chose rather than the productions – some of their choices really weren’t top-drawer (Gigi? Hello Dolly?), and even top-notch productions with excellent casts couldn’t hide that fact. So I am glad that they went out, after a fashion, with a bang with this production, where everything connects and everyone seems to be having such a good time. And I’m glad Moses got to see it at the Festival stage, while he still could.
That’s it for this season. For true obsessives, here’s a recap of my other reviews of Stratford this year (plus one production from the Shaw Festival in Niagara):