(High) Stepping in: Terry Burrell takes over in 'Oklahoma!'
- Burrell laces up (Photo: Joshua Yospyn).
When you’re rehearsing Oklahoma!, you must watch your metaphors.
“You mean the real gun?” Shane Rhoades asks Terry Burrell, when she asks whether she’s rushing the thigh-slapping steps that open Act II’s showstopper, “The Farmer and the Cowman.” Later in the song, she does indeed have to fire off a Colt 45 to stop a frontier brawl.
Tuesday night, Burrell took over E. Faye Butler’s role of Aunt Eller in Arena Stage’s production of Oklahoma! It’s the first time a lead has been replaced in the remounted show, which returned to the theater after last fall’s successful run. And Butler, who originated the role of Toughest Aunt in the West, was easily the most familiar local actor in the cast.
“I have never worked with E. Faye Butler, but I certainly knew her reputation in the business,” Burrell says. The two women met backstage only a week ago, after Burrell’s first rehearsal. “She walked right over and said, ‘Anything, anything that you need, you let me know.’”
Butler’s not going far—just down the hallway, actually, to start rehearsal for Trouble in Mind, opening Sept. 9—but she’s leaving Burrell with a difficult pair of size 8.5 custom-made Italian boots to fill.
Arena’s staging of the 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is universally cast, with black, Asian and Hispanic actors playing the pioneers who settled Indian territory at the turn of the 20th century. Laurie, the female lead, is black, as is her aunt. Burrell was born in Trinidad, not the prairie, but that hasn’t hindered her exploration of the frontier woman character.
“We don’t get a sense of who Aunt Eller is on the page,” Burrell observes. “She’s just on this farm, with a niece. You have to fill in the blanks.”
An example: The first thing Eller does onstage is flirt harmlessly with Curly (Nicolas Rodriguez) as he wanders into the theater singing about the height of the corn and the blue of the sky and the bright golden haze on the meadow. Eller’s on the front porch doing the washing. Lucky for Burrell, Tuesday’s opening scene produced her only snag in her first show: a towel got stuck in the hand-wringer. She still managed to seem captivated by Curly while prying it out.
“Aunt Eller really likes Curly, and she knows that her niece likes Curly, and she wants to see them together,” Burrell said. But in her estimation, the middle-aged matriarch is perhaps more in touch with her desires than her young niece, who as Eleasha Gamble plays her, is just discovering her own sexuality.
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