Theater Review: Oklahoma!

Oklahoma! Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. Directed by Patrick Cassidy. Point Park Conservatory Theater. October 18-27.

It was morning in America on the stage at Point Park’s Rockwell Theater. I wasn’t eager to see Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, set in Indian territory on the verge of becoming the Sooner State. I almost said “evergreen” musical—can it really be evergreen? It’s actually 70 years old. Post-Sondheim, post-Chorus Line, post- the attacks on America and drone warfare, wouldn’t the corn be too high?

Reader—remember how good corn tastes? This production was sweet and fresh. It was done without irony, thank goodness, and was exceptionally lavish yet tactful. I wondered whether even the original Broadway production had such a large cast of cowboys, farmers, and calico-clad gals. [Evidently, according to the Internet Broadway Database, it had.] The student cast was absolutely equal to their roles, and the direction as well as the actors must get credit for the perfection of such details as the comic timing of Ado Annie and Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler. There was also a clarity about the production—the cowboys and farmers distinguishable, the dance sequences part of the drama. Projections of what appeared to be period photographs during the overture and musical interludes supplied historical context and, for me, didn’t tip over into intrusiveness, as audiovisual enhancements frequently do.

The dancing was spectacular. It was new, choreographed by Zeva Barzell, but the cowboys’ dancing had the flavor of Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo choreography. Repeated gestural elements, as when Laurie and the girls sang “Many a New Day,” read very clearly. I expected the ballet sequence, Laurie’s dream, to be too long, awkward and dated, but the excellent young dancers, supported by the background projections and music, made it suspenseful, built real tension. Also building tension, and real menace, was the Jud Fry, both in the dream and in “real life.”

If I recall correctly, Leonard Bernstein made an extended comparison between the genres of musical and operetta, using Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls and The Most Happy Fella as examples. In addition to their formal differences, musicals, he said, came out of the milieu familiar to the New York audience and authors, like Guys and Dolls; operettas were set in a faraway exotic place—The Most Happy Fella in the Napa Valley of California. (Was this before South Pacific?)

It may not seem obvious now, when it plays all over the country and its title song is Oklahoma’s unofficial state song, but Oklahoma! would have been exotic to the Broadway audience. And recall the date: 1943. This sunny all-American musical opened during World War II, when the real-life boys were in uniform and the real-life girls might be wearing snoods and slacks for war work.

I have two regrets about this Oklahoma!: like most musicals I’ve seen lately, it was miked; and I didn’t see it early enough to recommend it to everybody I know.

Filed under: Arlene Weiner, Prose, Reviews: Performing Arts