Oh, what a beau­ti­ful pro­duc­tion

‘Ok­la­homa!’ restag­ing re­vives clas­sic in­no­cence of the orig­i­nal

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Stage - By Christo­pher Blank

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

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