SUNDANCE — Oklahoma! was the first musical written by the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and it ushered in the American musical theatre as we now know it. Following in the footsteps and building on the innovations of Show Boat, Oklahoma! continued the development of the “book musical:” a musical play where the songs and dances are fully integrated into a well-made story.
Set in the Oklahoma Territory in 1906 outside the town of Claremore, Oklahoma! tells the story of farm girl Laurey Williams and her courtship by two rival suitors, cowboy Curly McLain and the sinister and frightening farmhand Jud Fry. The show has one of the most glorious and memorable scores in musical theatre lexicon with songs like, “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “I Cain’t Say No,” “Many a New Day,” “Oklahoma,” and topped off by one of the most brilliant and perfectly written love songs about two people denying they are in love: “People Will Say We’re in Love.” And we can’t talk about OKLAHOMA! without mentioning the “dream ballet” which was inventive and unorthodox in 1943, and decades later, has evolved into a cliché. And that’s the pit that productions can fall into these days: cliché.
A youthful and energetic production of Oklahoma! is currently playing at the Sundance Summer Theatre, with amazingly inventive, yet underused, sets by Madeline Ashton, beautiful costumes by Dennis Wright, and uneven choreography by Nathan Balser. (The women’s choreography is lovely and charming, but the men’s choreography is unathletic, needing to be less “chorus boy” and more “cowboy.”) The production is fine, but falls into that pit of cliché.
Oklahoma! can be tedious and superficial if a director doesn’t understand the characters that people this musical. If played superficially and straight forwardly, Laurey will come off petulant and spoiled, when in reality she is a mixed-up, young frontier woman with a deep yearning for Curly. Likewise, Curly, if played strictly as a stuck-up cowboy and braggart, is unlikeable and insincere. Both of these youngsters love each other so much it hurts, and that’s what an audience needs to feel. Why? Because these experiences are nearly universal, and an audience comes to the theatre to see and feel stories about themselves and about people they know. An audience wants a story that tugs at their heartstrings and engages their emotions. An audience wants not only to be entertained, but enlightened to the plight of these two young people who just don’t seem to know how to tell each other how they feel. But in this production, none of these essential ingredients for a successful Oklahoma! are there.
Laurey, played by Hannah Pyper Dalley, does just fine. She has a lovely voice and she dances well. However, her Laurey is peevish, churlish, and without much heart. The result is a character that is unlikable, and I want to like Laurey, because if I don’t, how can Curly? Curly, played by Jacob Brown (whose hair, is not curly) also does just fine. He has a light baritone voice that tackles the classic songs nicely. He’s a jovial Curly, but, like Laurey, without much substance. Curly’s nemesis is Jud Fry, a threatening and terrifying predator of a man, who lusts after Laurey. Played by Daniel Lopez, I never once felt that Laurey was in any danger from this man. I don’t know if Lopez didn’t quite comprehend who Jud was, or if he was directed that way, but without the threat of Jud and what Jud might do to Laurey, there is no danger in the story and nothing to push Laurey towards Curly. Unfortunately, without that threat, the most important parts of the show fall flat.
There are standouts in the cast: Laurie Harrop-Purser is marvelous as Aunt Eller. Her performance is funny, thoughtful and layered. She plays a woman who understands what living on the plains is all about and you love her for it. She knows how much Laurey and Curly long for each other and prods them endearingly towards each other. Also of note, is Rachel Bigler as Ado Annie. Ado Annie is one of those roles that seems like a no-brainer, but if overplayed, can come off as a caricature. Bigler never once overplays the role and was a believable bundle of energy in every scene. She is delightful in the role of the young filly just waking up to the wonders of being a woman who wants to experience every man she meets. Finally, Paul McGrew is a great Ali Hakim, the peddler. Lecherous, without being creepy, his pursuit of Ado Annie is fun and funny.
Director Lisa Hall Hagen helms the production, and the show is nice, like most productions of Oklahoma! It’s sung well and looks pretty, but could have been so much more. Without a director willing to push a cast into finding the human beings that make up this classic, the show comes off as dated and its characters as silly. Oklahoma! may be many things, but it is not silly. It’s a show about two young people trying to find each other in a confusing world of emotions, social constraints and misplaced pride.
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