Story: Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, Oklahoma! tells a tale of romance in the Oklahoma Territory in 1906 as its residents look forward to imminently joining the United States. Outside the town of Claremore, a cowboy named Curly McLain visits the farmhouse of community leader Aunt Eller and her niece, Laurey Williams.
Curly intends to ask Laurey to the town’s box social, but his somewhat cocky attitude annoys Laurey, who turns him down despite her attraction to him. Instead, she accepts the invitation of mysterious farm hand Jud Fry, even though she fears the truculent loner.
While Curly courts Laurey, cowpoke Will Parker returns from Kansas City with gifts aplenty for the woman he desires, Ado Annie Carnes. The latter is a free spirit, currently enamored with a smooth-talking, Persian traveling salesman named Ali Hakim. Annie’s strict father, Andrew Carnes, doesn’t cotton to men taking advantage of his daughter, instead using his shotgun to ‘suggest’ that the man of the moment marry her.
It’s the Wild West of the early 20th century, where ranchers are begrudgingly learning to live with the farmers who will tame the territory and try to bring it “up to date” with Kansas City and the rest of the growing United States.
Highlights: This season-closing production at The Muny marks the organization’s 11th presentation of the musical that changed Broadway when it debuted in 1943. Muny executive director Mike Isaacson says in his program notes that “Each show we produce, we begin with the proposition that it’s never been done before, and we’re creating it at The Muny for the first time.”
Mission accomplished in this case, thanks to the imagination of director Rob Ruggiero and Ginger Thatcher’s re-staging of the inventive new choreography by Susan Stroman of Agnes de Mille’s legendary dances. This current rendition of Oklahoma! is as fresh and invigorating as a gentle breeze across the open plains or, perhaps more fittingly, as welcome as a cool night under clear skies at the Forest Park showcase.
Other Info: For an example of class, check out Isaacson’s biographical sketch in The Muny program. What a delightful way to acknowledge the community which bands together under the leadership of Isaacson and Muny president/CEO Dennis Reagan in Forest Park to stage musicals old and new for huge audiences anticipating top-notch entertainment.
Isaacson points out that Stroman’s choreography of a 1998 London production of Oklahoma! revealed the show’s ‘greatness’ to him for the first time and reinforced that “a ‘classic’ need not be a museum piece.” So it is with the latest interpretation of a show last done at The Muny in 2007. In his notes Isaacson thanks Ted Chapin of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and Stroman for allowing The Muny to be the first theater in the world to re-create her work.
Thanks to Ruggiero and Thatcher, the results are both impressive and dynamic. The large Muny ensemble moves gracefully across the stage in several spirited dances, highlighted in one case by Clyde Alves’ athletic acrobatics as energetic Will Parker on the engaging Kansas City number.
A second piece, the Dream Ballet sequence at the end of Act I that helped transform the American musical, features a dazzling performance by Christine Cornish Smith as Laurey, gracefully pirouetting with ensemble members, bathed in John Lasiter’s poetic lighting. Smith is equally adept with her singing, her clear, rich voice underscoring the warmth and romance in the duet People Will Say We’re in Love, with the equally talented Ben Davis as Curly.
Davis’ physical stature and strong vocal presence fill the bill for the leading man role of Curly, and his chemistry with Smith makes the romance of their characters all the more enjoyable. They are their colleagues are handsomely outfitted in right proper gear for the cowboys and maidens of the early 20th century thanks to costume designer Martin Pakledinaz.
Beth Leavel brings a steady presence to the show as the strong-willed but tender Aunt Eller, while Nehal Joshi and Jenni Barber humorously handle much of the work’s comedy as the fast-talking, quick-thinking Ali Hakim and the affable but slow-on-the-uptake Ado Annie, respectively.
Alexander Gemignani displays considerable talent in the problematic role of Jud Fry. While the moody farm hand is depicted in the script as a sullen loner, he’s traditionally ostracized as an outsider, someone whom Jud notes Laurey doesn’t consider “good enough” to be in her company. The Pore Jud Is Daid number, in which Curly encourages Jud to kill himself, has never been a proud moment in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s first collaboration.
The spirited ensemble includes local performers Drew Battles, Michael Baxter, Anna Blair, Ben Nordstrom, April Strelinger and Zoe Vonder Haar as well as natives Erika Hebron, Drew Reddington and Karily Ashley Surratt.
Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design features an impressive farmhouse front as well as Jud’s depressing lair and some colorful backdrops for comic scenes. Rob Denton adds video design, sound is by John Shivers & David Patridge, wigs are courtesy of John Metzner and Kevin Stites adds pinpoint musical direction of the rousing Muny orchestra.
The Muny opened (My Fair Lady) and closes its season with two enduring classics of this distinctly American art form. Oklahoma! looks and sounds fresh and appealing on Missouri's unique Muny stage.
Company: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Through August 16
Tickets: Free to $85; contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Phillip Hamel and Eric Woolsey