Oh, what a beautiful production
‘Oklahoma!’ restaging revives classic innocence of the original
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s prairie fantasy “Oklahoma!” is a show that divides even the most ardent musical theater fans into lovers and haters.
The haters tend to come from the many lost thespians who were forced to don chaps and hoop skirts in high school. Or those who find the show hokey and pokey or who have vague memories of falling asleep to Agnes de Mille’s dream ballet, which brings the already vacuous plot to a screeching halt.
People have durned good reasons to love it, too. Nostalgia. Innocence. And an infectious score that New York Times critic Lewis Nichols predicted, in 1943, would be “headed for countless juke-boxes across the land.”
Fortunately, the jukebox at Earnestine and Hazel’s, where I headed after seeing Theatre Memphis’ production of “Oklahoma!”, doesn’t still carry the soundtrack. The show was so innocuously enjoyable that my brain has been replaying the music over and over like a kid with a Fisher-Price record player and grandma’s Broadway cast recording.
Director Cecilia Wingate (“Little Shop of Horrors”) disarms the cynics from the very start. The lanky young actor Stephen Garrett takes the stage singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” beaming and swelling with the excitement of a lad who has just put on his first pair of boots.
Wingate makes no attempt to probe the dark love nooks of the psyche, as have recent major revivals of “Oklahoma!” Cowboy Curley and his farm girl love interest Laurey (Lauren K. Rachel) are virtually schoolchildren, not sure whether they should be falling in love or pushing each other in the mud. Even more childlike is the relationship of Will Parker (Carson Turner) and the “girl who can’t say no,” Ado Annie (Amanda Schraudt). They are babies in the sandbox, acting out grown-up roles while getting hung up on the practical matters of maturity. Parker can’t do simple addition, and Annie can’t subtract.
Set in the Oklahoma territory just before statehood, the landscape itself is stepping into a new pair of britches. Some characters already seem to be “adults” in this not- quite -ready-for-maturity world, and their relationships to the other characters are what make Wingate’s direction fresh, humorous and appealing.
One is the Persian peddler Ali Hakim, played by Jesus Manuel Pacheco, who quickly realizes that he wants no part on this playground. Pacheco’s asides to the audience have the exasperation of a babysitter getting dragged into a game of Barn Dance.
Another is the antagonist Jud Frye, a large, bearded fellow with naked pictures tacked to the wall of his filthy room. He simply doesn’t belong at the kid table; grown-up appetites make him seem icky. We feel sorry for Jud Frye, played with great feeling by Chris Cavin, but we also want him to go away.
Finally, there’s Aunt Eller, played with sassy authority by the excellent Randi Sluder.
Christopher McCollum’s expressive set is, in a way, like a large backyard playhouse. Walls and sections drop in and attach to a skeletal framework. It also gives the impression of a country under construction. Open spaces and great possibilities still exist on Ken Friedhoff’s beautifully lit horizon.
There’s a good chance that Theatre Memphis’ enthusiastic production might win over the few holdouts who have yet to decide whether they like “Oklahoma!” or not. Take it from someone formerly in the hater camp.
— Christopher Blank: 529-2305