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STAGE REVIEWS : Occidental Theatre Festival Tries Something Different : EAGLE ROCK


A situation farce, "The Foreigner," which is nothing but laughs, and that heartland classic, "Oklahoma!," which is nothing but melodic and boisterous good cheer, are enlivening the Occidental Theatre Festival this summer.

Known since its debut in 1960 for its summer revivals of Shaw, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Shakespeare, the festival made a total break with tradition this season.

The four-play repertory, which also includes "Blood Knot" and "The School for Wives," has made summer on the leafy campus at Occidental College a theatrical treat with audience-friendly indoor and outdoor theaters: the ornate Keck Theater and the outdoor Remsen Bird Hillside Theatre.

It's appropriately at the venue under the stars that Larry Shue's "The Foreigner" and Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" are staged with panache by the festival's resident professional troupe, the thriving Hillside Repertory Company.

Although "Oklahoma!" drew large crowds, "The Foreigner" triggered the most uproarious response at the curtain and the most laughs of any show in this reviewer's festival memory, which goes back to 1966.

Set in a fishing lodge in Georgia and centered on a painfully shy loner from England who avoids conversation by pretending to speak no English and instead mutters gibberish, "The Foreigner" is that rare gamble that indulges in contemporary situation farce and pulls it off beautifully.

Perhaps a primary reason for the production's savvy is that the director, Alan Brooks, acted with Shue in their early days at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre and created the title character when the show premiered in Milwaukee in 1983.

In order for the play to work, the "foreigner" must be a chameleon with a gallery of deadpan looks and nerdy mannerisms, and be capable of lingual acrobatics. The festival show is blessed with Tom Shelton, who is beguilingly dexterous in the role, deftly melding humor and an endearing empathy.

The cast that surrounds him is also on the mark, led by Daniel Stewart's take-charge Cockney soldier, Allison Orr's irascible fiancee, Raymond Donahey's sweet but dim young boy in overalls, and Sam Zeller's fierce redneck.

The very physical, golden-haired Zeller is cast in the two shows, jumping from a loud-mouthed redneck in "The Foreigner" to warbling those great songs--"Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "People Will Say We're in Love"--as hero cowhand Curly in "Oklahoma!" But, to his credit, you would hardly know it's the same actor.

However memorable its lyrics, "Oklahoma!" is, today, a long evening. That's primarily because the story line, nearly 50 years later, looms as pretty simplistic and the humor pretty hayseedy.

But there's no denying the great music and the inherent good nature of the work.

This production, capably and warmly directed by California Music Theatre and Hillside Repertory Company veteran James Martin, features the original Agnes DeMille dances vividly restaged by choreographer Danny Michaels, a six-piece orchestra under music director Russell Litchfield, solidly conducted by pianist Ron McGowan, and the pearly voiced Pamela Winslow as the love-smitten and fiery Laurey, who rules this rich spread of land.

As the energetic hero, Zeller stands out as an actor but shortchanges the show because he is only adequate as a singer, his timbre and vocal thrust not soaring enough to match romantic co-star Winslow in their duets or to carry the title song, among others, over the rim of the amphitheater.

The wooden apron stage accommodates evocative scenic designs for both productions: "The Foreigner" designed by Gary Wissman and "Oklahoma!" by L. J. Houdyshell, who also designed the fine set for "Blood Knot."

The festival is expected to draw more than 16,000 for the 40-performance, four-play repertoire. Many patrons, like Hollywood Bowl mavens, bring picnic baskets and dine on the lawn of the president's house before the show.

"The Foreigner," Hillside Theatre, Occidental College campus, Eagle Rock. Friday and Aug. 20, 25 and 28, 8 p.m. $8-$16. (213) 259-2922. Running time: three hours.

"Oklahoma!," Hillside Theatre, Occidental College campus, Eagle Rock. Aug. 22, 29. $6-$16. (213) 259-2922. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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