“No legs. No jokes. No chance” was the famous critique attributed to impresario Mike Todd (though he used a ruder word than “legs”). That was his verdict on “Away We Go” (or was it Walter Winchell’s secretary? – stories vary). The musical by the new team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, II premiered March 11, 1943 at New Haven’s Shubert Theater. Months later, after an engagement in Boston, the show, now dubbed “Oklahoma!” opened in New York, running a then-record 2,212 performances. Although preceded by groundbreaking “Showboat” (book and lyrics by Hammerstein) and “Pal Joey” (music by Rodgers), “Oklahoma” integrated libretto, score and dance as they had never been so conjoined before, thus creating a revolution in American musical theater.
The latest incarnation of this landmark show is at Goodspeed Musicals and all is well. Despite some quibbles, this production maintains the freshness of perhaps the most tuneful musical of all time (excepting, perhaps, Rodgers and Hart’s “Babes in Arms”). The cornucopia of songs are earworms: “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’”, “I Cain’t Say No,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” and, of course, the rousing title number.
Based on Lynn Riggs’ play, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” the show is a real Connecticut product, having been hatched when Westport Country Playhouse’s Theresa Helburn suggested to Fairfield’s Rodgers that the bucolic “Lilacs” might do for his next project. Rodgers bit and the result was an historic smash hit that, not incidentally, saved the fortunes of the Theatre Guild.
Taking place when Oklahoma was still Indian territory, the plot concerns Laurey, desired by both the eager Curly and the sinister Jud Fry, the ranch hand who works for Laurey’s Aunt Eller.
The show’s comic second couple is good-time gal Ado Annie and bumbling Will Parker. Also involved in a triangle, Ado is torn between goofy Will and wily peddler Ali Hakim. In the background is the feud between farmers who want the land for crops, and cowhands who want it for grazing cattle. (“One man likes to push a plow / The other likes to chase a cow.”)
The elements are familiar: there’ll be a happy ending, with the hero triumphant and the villain defeated, not exactly startlingly original. But the journey is filled with humor, romance, drama and the best danged dancin’ this side of the Mississippi, thanks to choreographer Katie Spelman and her well-drilled troupe of singing dancers. When they get to the ballet, “Out of My Dreams,” with its combination of light and dark, they reach their apogee, a salute to the show’s original choreographer, Agnes de Mille, as well as a gem all its own.
Jenn Thompson’s direction is a bit under the radar. With exceptions, she hasn’t fully explored the characters nor does her having Curly sing “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” to the audience make much sense. As Curly, Rhett Guter (so terrific in his award-winning role in Goodspeed’s “Bye Bye Birdie”) is smooth and charming, singing with gusto and moving with ease. If he’s not yet the dominant, slightly cocky leading man, he may grow into the role. As Laurey, Samantha Bruce is sweet-natured, relying on her smile, while Terry Burrell is a nonchalant Aunt Eller. Gizel Jiménez is a giddy Ado Annie, although not well served by the busy staging of “I Cain’t Say No.” Jake Swain puts just the right amount of hayseed into Will Parker.
Just about stealing the show is Matthew Curiano as the lovable, scheming Ali Hakim, even though his one song, “It’s a Scandal, It’s a Outrage” has been cut. Slick and sly, he blasts though the evening. As does Matt Faucher as the dark, mysterious, threatening Jud Fry. His solo, “Lonely Room,” often eliminated from revivals, is here rendered with unleashed power. As for the ensemble members, each has a name and is his or her own personality, a rarity for the chorus.
Except for Philip S. Rosenberg’s restless lighting, which goes through rainbows of color for seemingly every musical beat, the technical credits are fine: Tracy Christenen’s spiffy period costumes, Wilson Chin’s atmospheric scenic design and the fight direction by something called UnkleDave’s Fight-house. As usual, Michael O’Flaherty’s music direction and band are excellent. They surely must kvell whenever they play that magnificent score. You will, too.