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December 24, 2004

Stage Preview: Is this 'Oklahoma' OK?

Broadway or not, production of classic musical comes sweepin' into town

Friday, December 24, 2004
By John Hayes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A small-town girl from the Pittsburgh boondocks borrowed $160 from her dad and took off for Times Square, promising that when the money was gone she'd return home and give up her Broadway dreams.

Shirley Jones never moved back to Smithton. Before the money was spent, she landed a supporting role in a Rodgers & Hammerstein show that would open on Broadway, and within a few years she had the lead in the film version of the revolutionary "Oklahoma!" It was the first show to successfully combine drama, modern and classical dance and relevant songs that propelled the story in the mode that has come to be accepted as the modern musical.

Somewhere out there, there's an undiscovered Shirley Jones hoping to be seen by the right person in the right place at the right time. She, or he, might be among the traveling cast of "Oklahoma!" when it swings through Heinz Hall next week as part of the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series.

In fact, everyone on this tour is waiting to be "discovered." And while "Oklahoma!" is no longer revolutionary, this tour is controversial.

The non-Equity production is one of two low-paying, no-star shows produced by Ken Gentry's NetWorks Presentations that have been included in this season's PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh package. It's controversial because the Broadway in Pittsburgh productions of "Oklahoma!" and "Oliver!," which runs Feb. 1-6, have never played anywhere near Broadway.

Union activists and Broadway boosters complain that the less-experienced cast may not perform to the standards representative of a genuine Broadway show. NetWorks supporters argue that this criticism overlooks the possibility that audiences in the second- and third-tier markets where the show is touring might "discover" a Shirley-Jones-in-the-rough. The bigger exclamation point at the end of each show's title is the concern that single ticket and series package prices may not reflect the entry-level rates paid to the casts.

Producers of regional tours have been complaining for years that the cost of mounting such productions has made it tough to break even, let alone turn a profit. Acknowledging that the producers had a point, this year Actor's Equity Association, the stage actors union, approved a new multi-tiered contract that permits members to perform at less-than-Broadway pay grades. NetWorks Presentations hired the young non-union casts of "Oklahoma!" and "Oliver!" and booked the tours shortly before the new contract was approved.

Scott Zeiger, head of Clear Channel's North American Theatrical Division, which worked with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and Pittsburgh Symphony to plan the Broadway series, recently told the Post-Gazette that while NetWorks' "Oklahoma!" never actually played Broadway, the show "emulates" a recent Cameron Mackintosh revival, which was itself a spin-off of sorts of a Trevor Nunn production that played London. Its "Oliver!," said Zeiger, is based on Sam Mendes' recent London revival.

"There are so many bodies [on stage]," said Zeiger, "if these went out as full Equity productions, the operating costs would have forced the ticket price into the stratosphere."

Fair enough. But nowhere in PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh's printed literature does it say that this "Oklahoma!" hasn't played Broadway and is performed by a lower-paid non-Equity cast. Heinz Hall's Pittsburgh Symphony Web site includes an "About This Performance" page raving that the "sparkling new touring production" is "adapted" from the Mackintosh show without mentioning the never-played-Broadway detail. And PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh's link to Clear Channel's Broadway Across America site overlooks that point, too.

Single tickets to "Oklahoma!" cost $23 to $58.50, about the same as Broadway series tickets to Equity shows: "Les Mis," $22-$61, and "The Producers," $27-$60.05. PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh subscriptions include seven performances at Heinz Hall, the Benedum Center and the Byham Theater and range from $98 to $435. Last year's season packages ran from $148 to $440.

Trust spokeswoman Veronica Corpuz says the season price results from "a combination of factors."

"Last year's package included 'The Lion King' on a six-week run," she says. "This year we have a two-week run of 'Hairspray' as the highlight of the season. ... The Cultural Trust, the Pittsburgh Symphony and Clear Channel, partners in the Broadway series, are committed to bringing top-quality productions to the city, whether Equity or non-Equity, based on the availability of what's on the market."

Equity sees it a little differently.

"The economics of theater have dramatically changed over the last 10 years," says Equity spokeswoman Maria Somma. "There's been a proliferation of non-Equity tours that have now started to perform in major theaters that have traditionally hosted only Equity tours. This is being exacerbated by the venues advertising 'Broadway series' and including these shows as part of those series. The actors have never performed on Broadway, have never been under an Equity contract and are usually less experienced than seasoned Broadway actors. Equity is concerned that this is a form of false advertising [because] it's not a reflection of what people will see on Broadway."

Somma worries that the non-union tours, including NetWorks' "Oklahoma!" and "Oliver!" are taking work away from Equity actors, not contributing to their health fund, and are exploiting young and eager performers by paying bargain-basement rates.

Nevertheless, Nicole Andoga says she doesn't feel "exploited." The former resident of McKees Rocks has a block of Heinz Hall seats reserved for her extended Pittsburgh family to see her play Belle Baxter in "Oklahoma!," the 24-year-old's first acting job since leaving college. NetWorks flies her and the cast and crew from town to town, she says, and she shares comfortable hotel rooms with another cast member. After a year on the road with the tour, she's seen most of America. The producers believe in her enough to have renewed her contract after a major cast overhaul leading into the tour's second leg.

"Including both casts, I've been able to work with 60 of the best singers, dancers and actors that I've ever met," says Andoga in a phone interview from the road. "I get input from the producers and director and cast -- I've learned so much from these people. And I wouldn't say they're all 'inexperienced.' Some of them have been doing this for a long time and are very professional and extremely talented. NetWorks hasn't given us anything to worry about. Right out of college, I couldn't have asked for a better opportunity than this."

Equity or not, somewhere out there is an undiscovered Shirley Jones just waiting to light up the Pittsburgh stage.

(John Hayes can be reached at or 412-263-1991. )

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