Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2007
Unlike Lou Grant, I like a woman with spunk. And that is the one thing that saves Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic Oklahoma! from being nothing but a load of sugary sweetness for me – the genuine spunk of the three leading ladies: Laurey, Ado Annie, and Aunt Eller.
Actually, by a stroke of great good fortune, I woke up on June 10, 2007 in a Rodgers and Hammerstein mood. I am on record as not really being a Rodgers and Hammerstein kind of gal, but heck, I did grow up with this music and even when Hammerstein’s sappy lyrics send me screaming I can recognize a grand tune when I hear one, and Richard Rodgers made sure Oklahoma! was full of those. In keeping with the spunky women theme, my favorite song from the show is Many a New Day and I went off to the Mac-Haydn sure that, if nothing else, I would enjoy hearing Karla Shook sing it.
I had not realized that Lynn Riggs, whose 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs formed the basis for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s libretto, was a native of the Indian Territory that became the state of Oklahoma 90 years ago. He was born in 1899 just outside of Claremore, OK, a town mentioned a couple of times in Oklahoma! Almost all of Riggs’ writing focused on the people and places of the American southwest. Ironically however, he wrote Green Grow the Lilacs in France when he was there in 1928 on a Guggenheim Fellowship.
In his 1949 book Lyrics Hammerstein refers to Riggs’ play as “...the wellspring of almost all that is good in Oklahoma!” Hammerstein also refers to the source material’s “...strange combination of qualities -- lusty melodrama, authentic folk characters and a sensitive lyric quality...” which he and Rodgers strove, successfully, to preserve. It is those very qualities that keep Oklahoma! fresh and entertaining at the venerable age of 64. People still flock to see it performed because of that combination of authenticity and theatricality along with Rodgers wonderful score. I brought my eleven-year-old nephew along with me and we were just one of many families in the audience because this is a show people want to share with the children in their lives. It is part of an authentic American lexicon of music and story worth preserving.
There really aren’t any characters in Oklahoma! who aren’t well defined and entertaining. And here we get our first peek at the 2007 Mac-Haydn company, all of whom are newcomers except Shook and Jim Kidd, who plays Jud Fry.
I found that I liked Shook less in the role of Laurey than I thought I would, although he singing was indeed splendid. A pout is not her most attractive expression and Laurey spends a lot of time pouting in the first act. Shook’s Laurey struck me as more grumpy than spunky, which made it hard to understand what all the guys saw in her. Austin Riley Green, another actual Oklahoman, was charming in the role of Curly. Its nice to hear a genuine regional accent every now and then, and Green sang all those beautiful Rodgers’ tunes very nicely indeed.
Carol Charniga, who plays Aunt Eller, is a familiar face to local theatre-goers, having performed locally at the Theater Barn, NYSTI, Capital Rep, and the Cohoes Music Hall, but here she is finally making her Mac-Haydn debut. Over the years I have seen Charniga is roles for which she was unfortunately ill-suited, but Aunt Eller is a perfect fit for her. She brings a certain lady-like grace to part that is often lacking, and looks a treat in her powder-pigeon shirtwaists.
Kidd has played Jud five times in his career – this is his third time in the part at the Mac-Haydn – and he gives a powerful performance physically and vocally. Unfortunately, he has come to know and understand this man too well and gives us a Jud who is just too human. I actually felt sorry for him and agreed that Laurey was just being a little snob and rejecting him because he was a lowly hired-hand. Once the audience has sympathy for Jud the “happy” ending in which his death is tossed off as a kind of a joke doesn’t work. Jud needs to be absolutely terrifying from beginning to end.
It is very easy for a good Ado Annie and Will Parker to steal the show, and Emily Thompson and David Purdy very nearly do so in this production. Both are attractive and energetic young performers who sing as well as they dance, which is very well indeed. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a vigorous “Oklahoma Hello.” I am looking forward to seeing these to show their range as performers as the season progresses.
Al Pagano gives an hilarious turn as Ali Hakim, the “Persian” peddler. If Pagano’s red hair and freckles didn’t make it abundantly clear that he is no more “Persian” than I am his performance would have been decidedly politically incorrect. As it is he is just a silly con-man about whom nothing is real.
Director Rusty Curcio has given us a very “stagey” Oklahoma! Curcio is at his best with big dance spectaculars, and this show is a little smaller and quieter than that. The strong performers playing the leading roles save the production from teetering over the edge into corniness, but every time that chorus of farmers’ daughters and cowboys came grinning, giggling, and wiggling into view it was time to close your eyes and just enjoy the glorious voices.
The set design by Bob Hamel is serviceable and unobtrusive. Yes, they do bring that surrey with a fringe on top in for the final scene, and it makes a very fine tableaux.
Overall, the costumes are fair to middling. Brandy Jacobs has wedged Shook into some decidedly unbecoming frocks, including, inexplicably, a close replica of the blue-and-white checked jumper and poofy-sleeved white blouse Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz. When a costume is that strongly identified with a specific role it cannot be trotted out of the wardrobe anytime a dress of that period is needed. As it is Shook’s Laurey appears to have a wardrobe too large to fit into the tiny prairie cabin she shares with Aunt Eller. She could have done with one less costume change and avoided the whole situation.
And remember that pleather vest I objected to in 110 in the Shade? Well, it seems to have been breeding quietly in the back of the Mac-Haydn costume barn in the ensuing weeks because many of the Oklahoma farmers and cow-hands were sporting its off-spring. Perhaps the cows had some say in the matter?
Oklahoma! runs through June 17 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and forty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007