Reviewed by George Basler
Oklahoma! has a well-deserved reputation for changing the course of the American musical, and it remains a popular show to this day. But, while the musical was revolutionary in its time, some critics have tagged it as corny and simplistic by today’s standards.
The Endicott Performing Arts Center production, which opened this past weekend (March 11-13), gives ammunition to both positions.
The EPAC cast is spirited and does a good job presenting the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein songs. But their efforts can’t hide the fact that the plot is creaky and tedious at times and out of sync with modern sensibilities.
Oklahoma!, which opened on Broadway in 1943, is considered a landmark as one of the first musicals to fully integrate songs and dances into the story. The show is a sunny depiction of the American West at the turn of the 20th century, which is just what the public wanted in the midst of the carnage of World War II.
The main plot line focuses on the love affair between Curly, an amorous cowboy, and Laurey, a practical farm girl. The two bicker and fight even though the audience knows full well they’re going to end up in each other’s arms by the final curtain.
Providing dramatic tension is Jud Fry, a brooding hired hand who also has his eye on Laurey. The character is a complex one. While brutish and clearly the villain, he’s also something of a victim, having been rejected and ostracized by the “good people” of the community. That’s enough to embitter anyone.
Some recent productions have paid more attention to the darker elements of the story. That’s not the case with the EPAC production, directed by Patrick Foti, which is relentlessly upbeat. While that’s not a terrible choice, a more adventurous approach may have covered up some of the plot’s creakiness.
The EPAC production certainly has its strengths. Both Alexander Gill as Curly and Brianna Van Osdol as Laurey have fine voices and sing wonderfully well, both together and separately. The classic Rodgers & Hammerstein songs — “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin,’” “Many a New Day,” “Out of My Dreams” and “People Will Say We’re in Love” — are in good hands.
The large cast also brings a great deal of verve to the main production numbers. The choreography by Laura Ulrich is lively, notably in the numbers “Kansas City” in the first act and “The Farmer and the Cowman,” which provides a knockout opening to the second act.
In addition, Ulrich effectively stages the complicated dream sequence at the end of Act One as Laurey fantasizes about what life would be like with either Curley or Jud. In original production, the sequence was done as a ballet with trained dancers playing the “dream Curley” and “dream Laurey.” The EPAC production lacks the ballet dancers, and that limits its scope, but the sequence is still dramatically compelling.
Unfortunately, while Gill and Van Osdol sing well, you never really get swept away by their romance. Curley is a bit of a lightweight, and Laurey is too much the ingénue. This makes for a pretty bland main story line.
The secondary characters are far more interesting, and luckily the EPAC cast is solid one. Especially funny and sassy is Lyndsey Boyer as the amorous Ado Annie. She’s just a girl who “cain’t say no” as her affections bounce back and forth between the rustic cowboy Will Parker and a Persian (yes, Persian!) peddler, Ali Hakim.
As Parker, Andy Shaul gives a suitable “aw shucks” interpretation of his character and does a fine job in the lively dance number, “Kansas City.” As Hakim, Conner Gates is extremely funny as the peddler (aka huckster) who gets in way over his head in his dalliance with Ado Annie. His main number, “It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage!,” is loads of fun.
Also doing a fine job is Stacy Ernst as Laurey’s no-nonsense, but opened hearted Aunt Eller. Ernst successfully avoids the temptation of playing the character too broadly. Her portrayal stays grounded in reality while still drawing its share of laughs.
Leander Tanner has the difficult job of portraying Jud. He has a compelling singing voice and adds some depth and poignancy to the character with a first-rate performance of “Lonely Room,” which sums up Jud’s loneliness and bitterness. However, Tanner has the tendency to go over the top at times by just shouting his lines to show emotion.
Overall, the EPAC production drags toward the end. The final confrontation between Jud and Laurey, when she rejects the hired hand, lacks dramatic tension. So does the fight between Curley and Jud. Likewise, the key scene between Laurey and Curley, when they declare their love for each other, generates no sparks.
Still, the cast does a wonderful job with “Oklahoma!,” the show’s penultimate number. It’s a rousing tribute to wide-open spaces and optimism, just as it should be.
Your best bet is to go and enjoy EPAC’s rendition of the Rodgers & Hammerstein’s songs, which are still wonderful after more than 70 years. Then be tolerant of the plot. EPAC’s production shows why Oklahoma! is considered a classic … but it’s a classic that’s showing its age.
IF YOU GO: Oklahoma! will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday (March 18-20) in EPAC’s Robert Eckert Theatre, 102 Washington Ave., Endicott. Tickets are $20 ($18 for ages 65 and over and ages 12 and under). Call 785-8903, go online to www.endicottarts.com or visit the EPAC box office from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and one hour before show times.