Search This Blog

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Oklahoma: Okay!

RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN’S “OKLAHOMA!” typically is lauded as the first Broadway musical to integrate book and lyrics, its songs flowing seamlessly from dialogue setups. It’s an overstatement: this already had been happening often enough for a few prior generations to claim credit for such, including Hammerstein’s own work on the 1927 “Showboat.”

Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
But what “Oklahoma!” most strikingly achieved, at least in hindsight, was a shift away from the casual sexism of pre-1943 musicals, eliminating the nudge-wink of the chorus line and giving an operatic lift to the emotions of attraction. The show ran for five years on Broadway, hit the movie screens a few years later, and has become a staple of school and community theater productions.

My scant exposure to the piece left me thinking it was a cloying mess of sentimental mush, best avoided, yet I couldn’t recall the last time I saw it as I sank into a seat at the Glimmerglass Festival’s Alice Busch Theater for this season’s musical-theater classic. Which is just as well, because this production wipes the others off the map. It’s a glorious, fully committed, high-kicking three hours of joy. With, yes, a lot of sentimental mush, but the score is wonderful, the cast is first-rate, you’ve got a full-sized orchestra in the pit, and none of it is amplified. You’ll never see a production this good on Broadway.

A program essay stresses the variety of races that occupied the territory that would become Oklahoma, no doubt to reinforce the color-blind casting of this production. I’m declaring it unnecessary. The talent here is remarkable enough to need no such justification. The cast is as plausible as it is personable. Any trouble spots lie with the show itself.

So let’s hit those first. Two pairs of lovers provide the backbone of the piece: the contentious Laurey (Vanessa Becerra) and Curly (Jarrett Ott), and the indecisive Ado Annie (Emma Roos) and impecunious Will Parker (Michael Roach). Each of the women makes a play for another man: for Laurey it’s the repulsive Jud Fry (Michael Hewitt), while Ado Annie woos the comic-relief peddler Ali Hakim (Dylan Morrongiello).

Their motivations are very much in service of the plot demands. It’s easier to countenance Ado Annie’s choice, driven as she is by sheer lust, which she expresses in the song “I Cain’t Say No” – no doubt a welcome paean to the lonely servicemen seeing the show’s first performances, and now what could seem a cry of liberated self-determination were it not for the naughtiness that suffuses the context. Laurey, on the other hand, is frightened of Jud, and justifiably so. Although Hewitt humanizes his character as much as possible, there’s menace written into the script. It’s a long way to go to make the man you love jealous.

Bravura performances imbue a sheen of plausibility to unlikely moments. Ott’s Curly is discovered in the house near the top of the show, singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” in a gorgeous baritone voice so sincere that you’re moved to suspect that Curly actually may have seen an elephant’s eye at some point. When he joins Becerra in the duet “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” not only do their voices twine magnificently, but also the staging by director Molly Smith and choreographer Parker Esse (with a cleverly rendered prop surrey) make the scene especially endearing. Morrongiello is over-the-top committed to his portrayal of Ali Hakim, a character described as Persian but every bit the American con artist. It’s a cringeworthy caricature, sure, but we should keep in mind that the state of Political Correctness was only recently admitted to the Union.

Emma Roos as Ado Annie and Vanessa Becerra as Laurey
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
With all that out of the way – and it’s comparatively minimal – here’s a show that plays out against minimal but beautiful scenery, by the great Eugene Lee, with costumes that suggest the utility of outdoor duds but which effectively dance when needed, courtesy Ilona Somogyi. Judith Skinner has the commanding presence needed for Aunt Eller, while Kayleigh Decker is both endearing and annoying (as needed) in the role of the flirtatious Gertie.

Ado Annie will steal the show away if you let her, and Roos, her innocent face looking as surprised as we are by her antics, tears into it that character with eye-grabbing gusto. Good thing Roach makes his own strong showing as her other rather hapless suitor, especially when he sings and dances to a song like the rousing “Kansas City.”

The classic score delivers many more familiar numbers, brilliantly performed: “People Will Say We’re in Love,” the Curly and Laurey duet, the improbable “Pore Jud Is Daid,” and, of course, the title song. And there are lesser-known delights: Ali Hakim’s “It's a Scandal! It's a Outrage!,” “All Er Nuthin,’” sung by Will and Ado Annie, and Jud’s poignant “Lonely Room.”

Laurey’s “Out of My Dreams” takes us into the ”Dream Ballet,” with which Agnes DeMille changed the course of Broadway; here, choreographer Esse creates a magical, stylized scene with the help of Olivia Barbieri and Ezekiel Edmonds as the dream-sequence Laurey and Curly.

And, as always, there’s that orchestra. Conductor James Lowe gives us what we’ll rarely hear anywhere else, especially on Broadway: a full orchestra with no microphones needed. The provided surtitles are superfluous: you’ll hear and understand everything. Perhaps they’re to reassure the opera-goers who come here for the Donizetti and Handel and fear they might be slumming with Rodgers and Hammerstein. But you and I know that’s not the case. Which is why, if you like musical theater and live within a reasonable (or even slightly unreasonable) drive of this place, make plans to pack a picnic and see this show.

Music by Richard Rodgers; book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs
Conducted by James Lowe
Directed by Molly Smith
Glimmerglass Festival, through August 22, 2017.

No comments: