Story: Times are good in the Oklahoma Territory in 1906. Cowboy Curly has a hankering for farm girl Laurey, who works a ranch with her Aunt Eller. He wants to take Laurey to the county’s box social, but Laurey is miffed that he’s waited too long to ask her and says instead she is going with her moody farmhand, Jud Fy. Curly responds that he’ll just take Aunt Eller, then, in the fancy rig he’s rented for the occasion.
Laurey’s dimwitted friend Ado Annie tells Laurey she’s perplexed because she likes both men who are paying attention to her, namely cowboy Will Parker and traveling salesman Ali Hakim. When Annie’s father, Andrew Carnes, learns that Ali has been a little too friendly with his daughter he threatens Ali with a shotgun to marry Ado Annie. This is not what Will wants and far from Ali’s thoughts as well.
Laurey loves Curly and fears Jud. She needs to make a decision about her future, as does Ali Hakim, who schemes to find a way to get $50 to Will, the price Andrew agreed to receive in exchange for his daughter’s marriage to Parker. Trouble is, Will spent the money he won in Kansas City on a variety of trinkets, so he needs $50 again.
Hakim is desperate, though, as is Jud, who is in love with Laurey and willing to do what it takes to have her become his bride, even if murder is involved. Life may be fine in Oklahoma, but trouble is never far away.
Highlights: STAGES St. Louis closes out its 2018 season with a well-performed 75th anniversary production of the landmark show by Rodgers and Hammerstein that redefined the American musical.
Other Info: Oklahoma! marked the first collaboration of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. It features one memorable tune after another, ‘top-loading’ the first act with such familiar songs as Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’, The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, Kansas City, I Cain’t Say No and People Will Say We’re in Love, much as later efforts by the gifted duo such as South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music also did.
Premiering in 1943, Oklahoma! broke the record for musicals, running for 2,212 performances before closing in 1948. It featured a ground-breaking ballet sequence choreographed by Agnes de Mille in her Broadway choreography debut and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1944.
This is the second production of Oklahoma! performed by STAGES, which also presented a version in 1995. This particular rendition seems especially thick in schmaltz and heavy on the cornpone dialect of the time and locale, both in dialogue and in the singing of the stars, doubtless the way director Michael Hamilton prefers it.
Two performers new to Stages ably fill the major roles. Blake Price brings out Curly’s agreeable persona as soon as he warbles the opening number, Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’, as well as the cowhand’s friendly banter with Aunt Eller and the fetching Laurey. His handsome good looks epitomize the traditional role of the hero in the American West.
Sarah Ellis showcases her magnificent voice on the beautiful ballad, People Will Say We’re in Love, and demonstrates Laurey’s independent spirit in her give-and-take with Curly as well as when she takes charge on the number Many a New Day in union with her gal pals.
Scenic designer James Wolk presents a lavishly colored background to accentuate the wide open Oklahoma landscape, with suitable framework for Aunt Eller’s farmhouse and Jud’s lonely shed before it. That design benefits from some careful illumination in Sean Savoie’s shrewd lighting design.
Costumes designed by Brad Musgrove capture the essence of the cowboys’ range wear as well as the brightly patterned dresses favored by the lasses at the box social.
The role of Jud has always seemed problematic to me in that he is proclaimed the show’s ‘villain’ early on just because, well before any possible explanation is offered. In that complex part, David Sajewich is especially effective depicting the itinerant farmhand’s moodiness as well as poignantly expressing his loneliness in the ballad, Lonely Room.
Matthew Curiano makes the most of the rich comic material reserved for the nervous peddler, Ali Hakim, standing out in a garishly checkered suit cleverly designed by Musgrove. He plays well off Lucy Moon, who provides a good deal of the entertainment as the often love-struck Ado Annie and also Con O’Shea-Creal, amusing as the slow-witted Will Parker, who is eager to win the hand of flirtatious Annie.
Veteran STAGES entertainer Zoe Vonder Haar brings warmth, comedy and reassurance to the role of community leader Aunt Eller, while John Flack mines the comedy as Annie’s trigger-happy papa, Andrew Carnes, who somehow manages to be the area’s presiding judge as well. Other STAGES regulars Steve Isom and Leah Berry nicely fill the roles of Sheriff Cord Elam and Gertie Cummings, the woman with the unbearable laugh and a hankering for Curly, respectively.
Nicolas de la Vega pairs with Ellis as the Dancing Curly and Dancing Laurey in the Act I ballet finale. Their dancing is fine, but the compact stage in the Reim Theatre really doesn’t allow for the expanse of space required to give the de Mille ballet its due justice.
The supporting ensemble includes Christopher DeProphetis and de la Vega as cowhands Ike Skidmore and Slim, respectively, as well as Liz Friedmann, Patrick Graver, Drew Humphrey, Claire Logan, Hamilton Moore, Dena DiGiacinto, Mariah Studebaker, Karilyn Ashley Surratt, Rachel Thalman and Dana Winkle.
Based on the 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, Oklahoma! seems better served these days by the memorable Rodgers and Hammerstein blend of music and lyrics than for its creaky story. That score, under Lisa Campbell Albert’s musical direction, remains pleasing to hear in this faithful STAGES renditon.
Company: STAGES St. Louis
Venue: Reim Theatre, Kirkwood Civic Center, 111 South Geyer Road
Dates: Through October 7
Tickets: $25-$63; contact 821-2407 or STAGESstlouis.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak