ArtsATL > Theater > Review: Serenbe’s take on classic “Oklahoma!” aims high, but ultimately plays it too safe

Review: Serenbe’s take on classic “Oklahoma!” aims high, but ultimately plays it too safe

Serenbe's version of "Oklahoma!" (Photo courtesy Serenbe Playhouse)
Serenbe's version of "Oklahoma!" (Photo courtesy Serenbe Playhouse)
Serenbe’s version of Oklahoma! lacks the daring of other Serenbe productions. (Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus)

In tackling Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical Oklahoma! director Brian Clowdus, artistic director of Serenbe Playhouse, has a slew of challenges ahead of him — working with a large cast; employing his customary outdoor setting; staging a venerable piece of musical theater most people have definitive ideas and opinions about. Yet his biggest obstacle might be himself. The director set the bar so high with his wonderful take on Hair last summer that most anything after could be considered a letdown. His Oklahoma! is a sturdy enough production but it’s not the bravura staging it could have been. 

Now running through August 17 at the Hay Barn at the Inn at Serenbe Playhouse, Oklahoma! closes the fifth season of the inventive troupe, with its classic love triangle involving cowboy Curly McLain (Edward McCreary), Laurey Williams (Kelly Chapin Schmidt) — who hate each other and then love each other — and lone wolf Jud (Bryant Smith). Clowdus has decided to amp up the dark nature of the musical, as well as the sexiness, while also emphasizing dance moments and humor. 

The problem is, conceptually, it’s not as daring or innovative as it sets out to be. The outdoor setting can indeed be fun. Animals roam around behind fences; characters walk in and out of a real barn; Curly makes his entrance riding a horse down a dirt road singing. In a highly theatrical scene, Curly visits Jud in his smokehouse, smoke billowing out dramatically, lit with mood to spare by Kevin Frazier.

Take away the outdoor setting, though, and this version isn’t that discernible from others. What’s missing is any kind of distinctive, unique touches that Clowdus often brings to a production. In fairness, some of his cast members don’t make the impressions they should. As the central couple, McCreary and Schmidt look the parts and both sing pleasantly enough, most notably in his “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” and her “People Will Say We’re in Love.” But the two are a touch bland together. What doesn’t come across is any real passion or any emotional stakes between them.

In support, Jessica Miesel overdoes it as flirty Ado Annie and her scenes with cowboy suitor Will Parker (Austin Tijerina) are annoying. Tijerina is an animated presence all right — doing backflips, grandstanding and never standing still. It’s an impressive acrobatic display but despite his tireless performance, the actor is unconvincing as a cowboy. 

The most assured performance comes from Smith as Jud, with a striking physical presence and a baritone that is menacing. The actor has been doing some impeccable musical theater of late. His “Lonely Room” solo is a highlight. Lala Cochran brings her customary warmth to the role of Aunt Eller and Tony Larkin adds sly humor as peddler Ali Kahim.

At its peak Oklahoma! can be quite enjoyable. Some of the fight sequences are cleverly staged, and Jane B. Kroessig’s smart costumes make the performers look authentic. Bubba Carr, a frequent collaborator, handles the choreography and gives some of the song and dance moments real snap and joy. 

The best number here might be the titular song, ably performed and choreographed. But other times, such was the case in the recent Clowdus-Carr collaboration Godspell at Stage Door Players, it’s too much. The much-noted dream ballet sequence is here — with poor Laurey torn between two men — and Carr and Clowdus don’t compromise. The sequence begins rather hypnotically, then gets odder and odder and goes on forever.

The night I attended, sound problems marred the performance and became a distraction, with performers singing from one side of the stage and their voices being projected via a speaker on the other side. It made for a jarring experience — and hopefully those kinks have been worked out.

It’s easy to see why Oklahoma! has remained durable for so long. The first musical written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, its story and use of song combine together like clockwork. Serenbe’s take reminds us of that, but the surprising aspect here is that, despite its intentions, this new production ultimately more resembles your grandmother’s Oklahoma! than it does an edgy new take. 

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