Okies on the way

Updated: 2012-05-04 08:46

By Sun Yuanqing (China Daily)

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Okies on the way

Musical director serves up some classic American fare

Set against a high-spirited rivalry between farmers and cowboys, it is a well-known love story in the early 1900s that occurred just before the state of Oklahoma was formed.

Broadway musical Oklahoma! could not get more American than that, but director David Peck is convinced Chinese audiences are now also ready to be wowed.

"The name Oklahoma may not mean much to a Chinese audience, but the words 'American musical theater' do," says Peck, 67.

"The one thing that really would appeal to the audience is the music, which is written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the same two writers who wrote The Sound of Music."

Oklahoma! is set to be staged in Beijing for the first time by theater group Beijing Playhouse from May.

The show became a box-office hit in the United States when it opened in the 1940s. It also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 and enjoyed several revivals.

There are some concerns whether the musical, deeply rooted in American culture and the Western experience, will be able to capture Chinese audiences like how other musicals such as The Sound of Music or, more recently, Mama Mia! did.

Oklahoma! is set during a time when there was tremendous optimism and new confidence in the US as the country came into its own after World War I and it delivers a deeper message in contemporary China, Peck says.

"It's very much like China in its development right now. The spirit of getting together and moving forward is the same as the aspiration Chinese people have right now," he says.

A theater veteran with more than 40 years of experience in the US, Peck joined Beijing Playhouse, which also calls itself "China's English Broadway Theater", after retiring to the capital with his Chinese wife four years ago.

Having been cast in The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge and directed You Can't Take It With You, Peck is seen as "the best native English-speaking director in this country" by Chris Verrill, the executive director of Beijing Playhouse.

"First of all, he has lots of experience. Second, he understands how to tell a story that the audience would enjoy," Chris says.

Peck himself played the leading role of Curly in Oklahoma! in 1975 when he was studying for a graduate degree in directing at the Florida State University. As the director this time, he expects the play, although still based strictly on the original version, to be quite different.

"Your view point when you look at a play as an actor is totally different from that as a director. It (the one he acted in) was an opera, which is not as deep and detailed. We are doing the work moment by moment, what makes this happen and how scenes are related."

As one of the first plays in which the music "really tells the story", Oklahoma! demands not only dazzling singing and dancing, but also excellent story-telling skills.

"We have some comic scenes. And when the head turns and how the body goes, these things are crucial. That's what makes it funny. And the timing has to be exactly right for the physicality," Peck says.

Although Peck does not speak much Chinese, he says that the Chinese crosstalk, with its marvelous physicality, has been inspiring him in his directing of Oklahoma!.

"I love crosstalk. I know what's going on even if I don't understand the words. I love to watch it when the look comes," he says, posing the awry look often seen in the Chinese performance.

"It inspired me to do the work with my actors as well. You have to have the thought in order to make the movement. It's technical, but it's also internal."

As a seasoned director, Peck knows exactly how to treat and inspire his cast.

"He never gets us nervous and always listens to us. He knows what to say at the right moment, which is really important for us," says Yoad Bar-Noy, the leading actor in Oklahoma!.

Peck did his first play in the US Marine Corps base theater when he was 19. Setting out as an actor, he played the leading role in Gal Young'Un, which won the Best Independent Film Award from the Boston Society of Film Critics. The New York Times reviewed Peck, who played the role of Trax, as an actor with a "richness of detail in his comic deceit".

But Peck later took up theater directing and found it more exciting.

"The theater has given me a gift that I can give, that I know is worth giving," he says.

"I live inside the work. I've done 35 different jobs for money, but I always know that I can come back to the theater."

For the past 20 years, Peck taught in the Milton Academy in Massachusetts, where he served as chair of performing arts and taught some of "the best students in the country".

Working with Beijing Playhouse has given him new experiences, Peck says.

"What makes me most satisfied is to take people who are amateurs and turn them into better performers. Yesterday I was looking at the photos from You Can't Take It With You and I just kept laughing. It was not something that I had done that made me laugh, but something that they had done and learned."

Asked about the English theater scene in Beijing, Peck says he still has some concerns about the awareness of audiences over the genre here - but he is determined to do his job well.

"Our mission is to present well-known English-language plays to both English-speaking and Chinese audiences. It would be sustainable as long as we do our job well enough. I think Beijing Playhouse is a tremendous asset to Beijing," he says.

Peck is also looking into the local film industry.

Having been cast a small role in Qian Xuesen, a biopic of the renowned Chinese scientist, he recently took part in Searching, a film by award-winning Chinese director Chen Kaige.

"I really enjoyed working with Chen Kaige. As an actor, I prefer films because you don't have to do it night after night," Peck says.

"But as a director, I prefer stage because stage has much more rehearsals and details."


(China Daily 05/04/2012 page21)