OREM – Ho-hum. Another opening of another Oklahoma! Curly ambles down the auditorium’s aisles and onto the stage rhapsodizing about “a bright, golden haze on the meadow”—but it’s just a painted backdrop. The music is western-tinged, with strumming guitars and harmonicas, and you fear the taped accompaniment won’t serve Richard Rodgers’ sweeping melodies. As Act 1 unfolds, you sense the actors’ eagerness to establish their characters but play the humor a bit too broadly. Even “Kansas City,” Will’s showpiece first-act dance number, is marred by the actor’s dead mike. His fellow dancers are well-rehearsed and full of boot-stomping energy but the number fails to ignite.
Then the stage is transformed into Judd’s smokehouse, and the theme of the Utah Valley University production becomes clear. You sit up in your seat and begin to fully appreciate the complexities of what is often considered to be a frivolous musical.
Oklahoma! is a landmark in theater history. There are musicals before Oklahoma! and musicals that after Oklahoma! It was the first to fully integrate song and dance to convey both plot and character instead of using song and dance as a diversion from the story. And it’s the first American folk musical. But Oklahoma! also introduced themes that Rodgers and Hammerstein would continue to explore—among them racism, sexism and classism. Utah Valley University’s Oklahoma! honors the story’s darker impulses to explain the toughness of the country’s early prairie years. The sad juxtaposition between the meager life of a working hand like Jud and the upbeat optimism of the other characters is not diluted here.
As “Pore Jud Is Dead” begins, there is a palpable animosity as Curly enters Jud Fry’s foreboding dwelling. “Lonely Room,” Jud’s solo that was cut from the first cast album and the movie version, feels essential in this production, and the smokehouse scene becomes pivotal. We’re then swept up away in the drama of this Oklahoma! well into the show’s satisfying conclusion.
The singing here is generally fine, though firm vocal guidance is lacking—you just can’t fake your way through these songs. While we’re accustomed to Curlys with powerful, booming voices, Robert Fletcher tries a more conversational realism, and to a large degree it works. With his aw-shucks grin and towering presence, the affable actor gives a pleasant performance. Feisty tomboy independence is seen in Julie Garcia’s well-acted Laurie, and the actress has a charming voice. The pair work well together and we feel the joy in their love. Jacob Theo Squire gives a performance of brooding power and skillfully paces Jud’s tricky vocal demands. With her textured voice, Lita Little Giddins plays a pert Aunt Eller.
Ado Annie, Will Parker, and Ali Hakim provide comic relief, but despite the actors’ skills, their roles just don’t seem necessary. Kelly Coombs overplays the amorous Ado Annie nearly into a cartoon character but her strong vocals deliver a wallop. Chase Ramsey lassos each of his scenes as the rope-twirling hayseed Will and robustly executes his boot-scooting choreography. Andrew Hansen has a strong sense of timing and gives us a confident and wily Persian peddler.
Dave Tinney’s direction is secure and his choreography has the right showiness without taxing a less-experienced dancer. The high-spirited “The Farmer and the Cowman” highlights the strong, hard-working ensemble but the staging and costuming don’t clearly tell us who’s a farmer and who’s a cowhand. The innovative dream ballet, danced by the full cast along child actors alternately portraying Laurey and Curly at two additional younger ages, evolves from dream into nightmare with the crack of a whip.
“You cain’t deserve the sweet and tender in life les’n you’re tough,” Aunt Eller advises Laurey. And that punctuates what we’ve learned in this smart, handsome Oklahoma!