A Bright Golden Haze at Goodspeed
It’s March 31, 1943. The lights dim in the St. James Theatre, there’s a melodious overture, and then…a big production number to get the audience’s juices flowing? Nope. Instead, a lone cowboy appears on stage and sings about how lovely the morning is and how everything’s going his way. Over the course of the two-plus hours of the premiere of “Oklahoma!” American musical theater was changed forever. The musical, the first collaboration of Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics), cemented the dominance of the “book” musical as the predominant format for what followed, termed the “Golden Age” of American musicals.
Flash forward seven-plus decades and that same cowboy walks up one of the aisles at Goodspeed Opera House, once again proclaiming that it’s a beautiful morning. What follows, directed by Jenn Thompson, is a faithful, delightful recreation of the 1943 classic, providing ample evidence why the initial production was so ground-breaking.
Based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs, a less than successful effort about settlers in the Indian (read Oklahoma) Territory circa 1906, the plot of “Oklahoma!” is simplicity itself. Cowboy Curly (a confident Rhett Gutter) is in love with farm-girl Laurey (an engaging Samantha Bruce), but she’s playing hard to get. Lurking on the farm run by Laurey’s Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell) is farmhand Jud Fry (a sufficiently menacing Matt Faucher), who covets Laurey when he’s not sifting through his “French” postcards.
There’s another romance going on, actually a love triangle of sorts, with Ado Annie (a pert and vivacious Gizel Jimenez) at the top and cowboy Will Parker (Jake Swain) and peddler Ali Hakim (a dead-on Matthew Curiano) vying for her affections. That, in essence, is about it, save for a bit of contention between ranchers and farmers. We’re not talking Ibsen of Chekhov here – it’s basic soap opera stuff dealing with the burning questions: Will Curly eventually win Laurey’s hand or will Jud have his evil way with her? Will Ado opt for Will or Ali?
So, why was “Oklahoma!” so ground-breaking? Well, that goes back to the idea of the “book” musical, which basically refers to a musical in which almost all of the songs either comment on what has happened or move the plot forward rather than being musical interludes that often have nothing to do with the plot.
Take, for example, the scene between Curly and Jud late in the first act. Laurey, playing her coy hand a bit too far, has announced that she has agreed to go with Jud to the box social, which motivates Curly to confront Jud in the farmhand’s hovel. What follows is Curly’s witty put-down of Jud in the form of a dirge, “Pore Jud is Daid,” which envisions Jud hanging himself (Curly has conveniently strung up a noose) and the grief of the mourners, all of whom, so Curly suggests, never truly understood Jud. Curly’s effort is so effective that Jud joins Curly in lamenting his own passing. A song like this would never have appeared in the bright and breezy musical comedies of the 20s and 30s.
As is almost expected of Goodspeed Musicals productions, the ensemble work is just about superb, much of it choreographed by Katie Spelman. Three numbers stand out: the “Kansas City” sequence in which Will let’s people know that everything’s up-to-date in that city and then introduces dances that are all the rage in that metropolis with a seven-story skyscraper; “The Farmer and The Cowman” number, which opens the second act. Here, Thompson and Spelman have just about the entire, substantial cast up on the somewhat constricted stage, all whirling and twirling (I heard one exiting audience member comment: “It’s a wonder someone didn’t fall off the stage.”)
Finally, there’s the beautiful “Ballet” (often referred to as the “dream sequence”) that closes the first act. Laurey sniffs a potion she has bought from Ali which is supposed to make her see “clearer.” What it does is bring on a hallucination in which the struggle between Jud and Curly, and what the two men represent, is dramatized through dance (originally choreographed by Agnes DeMille, her first foray into Broadway choreography). It’s evocative and captures Laurey’s doubts and fears.
The leads and supporting actors in the cast are all excellent, but special mention should be made of Jimenez’s performance as Ado Annie and Curiano as Ali. Jimenez ably captures Ado’s somewhat unbridled libido (“I Cain’t Say No!”) while, at the same time, displays her character’s inherent innocence, not to mention that she’s called upon to do some almost death-defying flips as Ali and Will show how Persians say goodbye and cowboys say hello.
Curiano, as Ali, provides much of the comic relief, and he does so with a droll, world-weariness that is delightful. Yes, Ali is a lothario, but he has trouble skipping town before an irate father pulls a shotgun on him. With great timing and emotive body language he ably conveys the plight of a ladies man not slick enough to skedaddle while the getting’s good.
Before “Oklahoma!’ opened at the St James it had tryouts as the Shubert Theater in New Haven. The reviews were mixed for a show that was then called “Away We Go.” Obviously, there were some changes made, including the addition of the show’s anthem, “Oklahoma!” Oddly enough, although Goodspeed’s forte is the showcasing of classic musicals, this is the first time “Oklahoma!” has been produced on its stage. The wait has been well worth while, for this is a sparkling, engaging piece of American musical history ably brought to life by the cast and crew at Goodspeed.
“Oklahoma!” runs through September 27 in an extended run. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.