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Road serving raw talent

With union budgets nixed, stix see neophytes in major revivals

Audiences attending the new national tours of “Oklahoma” and “Oliver,” both bearing the stamp of Cameron Mackintosh, are for the most part getting plenty of country flavor in the former and city squalor in the latter.

The visual elements of these productions stack up well against the original stagings from the West End (and, in the case of “Oklahoma,” Broadway).

And both are being presented with the usual fanfare. ” ‘Oliver’ features a touring company of over 70 individuals,” boasts David M. Galligan, president of St. Paul’s Ordway Center, in the program. That makes it “the largest stage production Ordway Center has ever produced.”

There’s just one catch: All the performers onstage are greener than young corn.

Renata Renee Wilson, who plays Nancy in “Oliver,” is making her post-college stage debut — just a few months earlier, she’d been in “Kiss Me Kate” at Otterbein College.

Fagin? Following the likes of Jim Dale, Barry Humphries, Robert Lindsay, Ron Moody and Jonathan Pryce comes one Mark McCracken. “You’ve seen on him on several reruns and DVD rentals,” declares his bio.

“Oklahoma’s” Curly? Right out of Ithaca College. Laurey? Just graduated from the College of Charleston. Surely Aunt Eller had some credits worth noting? “Pat Sibley is happy to be resurrecting the part,” we read, “after having played her at the Village Theater in Issaquah, Wash.”

Welcome to the weird new world of non-union shows — massive, multitruck, non-Equity affairs that feature far more extensive production values than their tawdry split-week predecessors, but are now paraded sans any apology in the upper echelons of the road.

We’re not talking one-nighters in Saginaw any more, but the biggest theaters in major cities. And everything is as it used to be except the actors and the musicians.

Brand names and original logos are attached. Broadway and West End direction is re-created by the original assistants. Mackintosh himself attends auditions and acts as a quality controller. But still, most of the cast is just out of school.

Indeed a sea-change in touring American legit is taking place, and this realignment of the biz has gone largely unremarked upon by an entertainment media that still sees almost all its shows in New York and barely notices the goings-on out of town.

Sure, a few local crix have huffed and puffed about the sudden dominance of non-union shows on touring dockets in their burgs. And Equity has sent out a few press releases and, sporadically, organized the odd picket.

But while the biggest legit story of 2003 was the Broadway musicians’ strike, which centered around a relatively minor dispute involving the number of players in Broadway pits, this far larger story went almost unnoticed: In every city in the country except New York, audiences are watching neophyte actors because unions and producers have been unable to work out a deal on the road.

How did this bizarre situation come to pass? Producers say the production contract — with its expensive per diems — is no longer financially workable except for a handful of megahits. Meanwhile, Equity has been reluctant to water down its most lucrative contract or make special deals, in part because the body of Gotham-based members fear such concessions ultimately would apply to Broadway. And, the union says, those production-contract minimums aren’t exactly fortunes.

As a result, the pipeline of union road shows has dried up, even as those big renovated theaters from the 1990s need more and more product. And enterprising and capable producers — such as Ken Gentry of Networks and Dan Sher of Big League — have stepped up to fill the gap.

Now, powerful venues like the Denver Center (which held out for the last couple of years) ultimately have had no choice but to book non-Equity tours. And if you ask the presenters about it, they argue the quality of such shows has risen to such a point that they no longer are second-class.

Exhibits A and B? The new “Oliver” and “Oklahoma.”

But does that argument hold up? Are the new non-Equity juggernauts up to union snuff?

Based on a back-to-back look at the two shows on a December weekend (“Oklahoma” in Denver, “Oliver” in St. Paul), the answer is complex.

Without doubt, both productions are far bigger than any prior non-union legit tours and, in terms of the physical stuff on stage, both compare favorably with, say, the diminutive current union tour of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which travels far lighter.

“Oklahoma” has a scrim where the orchestra used to be on Broadway, but most of the original (and fairly minimal) design work is intact. And “Oliver,” with a plethora of backdrops and sliding pieces from Adrian Vaux, goes some way toward re-creating the gorgeously contrasting social worlds evoked in the Palladium production. When it comes to the overall standards of the road these days, neither show is bad.

Overall, though, “Oklahoma” generally holds together well, while “Oliver” has far more holes. Perhaps that’s because the Nunn production (re-created by Fred Hanson) was fresher — or maybe it’s that longtime Susan Stroman assistant Ginger Thatcher is a dab hand at redoing the original choreography. “Oklahoma” also has the benefit of the original designer, Anthony Ward, adjusting his own sets for the road.

“Oliver,” on the other hand, is far more distant from Sam Mendes’ original West End production and Matthew Bourne’s original musical staging, and it has lost much of its social commentary in the process.

But the main reason Ado Annie and pals fly while Fagin and felons struggle is a perennial sticking point of non-union shows that even eight semis cannot alter. Productions that rely mainly on ingenues can survive and even thrive non-union, while those that are built around older characters cannot.

“Oklahoma” director Graham Gill found delightfully fresh-faced, sweet-voiced and clearly hungry youngsters to play Laurey, Curly, et al. (characters that are, after all, supposed to be in their late teens), and their perfs make up in charm what they lack in experience or vocal heft. Overall, they’re the equal of what you’d find in a union show.

But kids or no kids, Lionel Bart anchored the structure of “Oliver” around a powerful Bumble and, especially, a cracking Fagin, whose scenes are designed to showcase tour-de-force solo numbers (underwhelming here). When you nix pretty much everyone from the casting pool who has made a living in legit for the past 20 years, you’re left with thin gruel. And in “Oliver,” it shows.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Presenters in big markets should be ready to make commitments to all-union seasons after the production contract is renegotiated in the spring. The alternative is, in the long run, a disaster for the road.

In turn, Equity should be flexible enough that an “Oliver” with 70 performers can number at least some union members in its cast.

If the delightful young discoveries in “Oklahoma” had been paired with union character actors of some heft and experience, they’d really have had something to cheer about in Denver.

One’s thing for sure: Nobody would put up with either show in New York. And it’s never been made clear by producers or unions why the people of Denver or St. Paul should have to.

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