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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Rachel Dunham
Photo by Ange Leggas

Rachel Dunham may not look much like Oprah Winfrey, but from the instant she opens her mouth at the start of the New York Musical Theatre Festival production of Orpahfication, she sure sounds like the undisputed queen of daytime talk. The combination of velvety coos, guttural boasts, and foghorn-like sustained syllables for the ultimate in emphasis ("Obaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaama!") brand Dunham as every bit the real deal. And this show, for which she wrote the book and lyrics to Shanon D. Whitelock's music, goes out of its way to prove that, for better or worse, Winfrey is as well.

The setting is a live anniversary special, in which Oprah relives all her greatest moments and plans to lead up to the "ultimate interview" that will encapsulate her career in a blaze of interrogatory glory. Those reminiscences naturally lead into songs, composed across a swath of styles ranging from pop to gospel to musical theatre to spiritual, in which she restates her various life philosophies, prays for serenity and success, and addresses the questions that have dogged her throughout her career. Topics as banal as her audition for The Color Purple and the genesis of her T.V. series are considered alongside more controversial matters, particularly her relationships (and endlessly speculated gay rumors) with her partner Stedman Graham and her friend Gayle King.

Not that Oprahfication comes down on these heavily, of course—the limited scope of this 70-minute show, even given Dunham's steamroller performance and Dirk Hoult's aggressive and energetic staging, wouldn't let it go that far. And certainly the earliest scenes play too openly into our stereotypes and preconceptions about Winfrey, making them little more than a bland recap of what had to be a somewhat more remarkable career and ascent to the tip of the top for women in entertainment. They're not a chore to watch, but they're not enlightening at all. And the "clips" we see of this episode, including the too-predictable "ultimate interview," lack the comic bite they're obviously intended to have.

In the final minutes, however, Dunham turns the tables and reveals both the darker side of Oprah and our natural national affection for her and her accomplishments, forcing us to consider whether, ultimately, our worship of her is a good thing or more destructive and parasitical than we may recognize. It's an oddly, but satisfyingly, chilling finish to a bright and beaming musical, and it works—though I'm not sure the rest of Oprahfication would be worse off if it demonstrated (or at least hinted at) a smidgen more of the color, the depth, and the heft we eventually come to see the remarkable Dunham isn't actually hiding from us after all.

The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2014
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