Oklahoma!Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the play with music "Green Grow the Lilacs" by Lynn Riggs. Directed by Eric Hill.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"We jist ain’t gonna let ya!"
When, in 1931, "Green Grow the Lilacs" by Lynn Riggs opened in New York, a Theatre Guild production starring a young Franchot Tone and June Walker as Curly and Laurie with Lee Strasberg as the peddler, it lasted a mere 64 performances. It had three musicians in the cast and at least a dozen songs including "Home on the Range" and "The Chisholm Trail" interpolated into the play by director Herbert J. Biberman. A decade later the Guild contracted Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to write an actual musical based on the play. After some trial and error, utilizing the Riggs script almost intact but with an altered ending, the show opened as "Oklahoma!" in 1943 and ran 2212 performances (or five years and two months) spawning a new career for both of the collaborators.
The new songs were very good, very popular. The same cornball cowboy script was in place, sometimes word for word. The very large cast of 58 players included among the ensemble the dancers Bambi Lynn, Marc Platt, Scott Merrill, Katherine Sergava, Kenneth LeRoy, June Graham, Dania Krupska and Joan McCracken while the singing ensemble employed George S. Irving, Robert Penn, Herbert Berghoff, and Jay Gould, all of whom went on to long careers in the theater.
Laurey, in the rewrite, was transformed into a mostly disagreeable spoiled brat of a girl whose biggest hit song, "People Will Say We’re in Love" is still a terrific number even if the logic of it still escapes me in this new production by the Berkshire Theatre Group at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. No one in their right minds would confuse the attitudes of diffidence and distaste for love. When Diane Phelan, as Laurey, sings (beautifully, by the way) the song in which she describes all of the things her male friend should never do you can be certain she is describing all of the things he has never done and is not likely to do even on his best day. The wishful thinking that is at the core of the lyric is much better expressed by Hammerstein a few years later in a different show, "Carousel" when the heroine sings "If I Loved You," which we already know she does - so different from this setup and song.
You may have guessed that "Oklahoma!" is not my favorite show. You might have already guessed that this edition is not my favorite either. It is exuberant, and sprightly for an old show, a vintage piece of Americana that hit home at the right time back in 1943. It’s appeal was its wholesome expression of "true American" values during the difficult central years of World War II. It’s message of optimism and for frontier justice struck just the right chord back then but now, with Wikileaks and NSA plotting and the miscarriages of justice imposed on American citizens by the American government, the simple plotting of this musical seems to just laugh at our values, to mock our desire to be safe within our environment and our country.
So, on to this production.
Laurey is played by Diane Phelan who strives to be as unpleasant to just about everyone as is humanly possible. She sings beautifully but that is all she contributes to this show; her portrayal of the frontier heroine is one of poise, occasional whimsy, high moral judgements about others, snobbishness and a strange lack of compassion when her husband participates in the accidental death of her tormentor. In the Riggs play this is not how Laurey interacts at all.
Her true love, Curly, is played with open-wide arms representing passion and a very wide grin imparting intimate love by Jarid Faubel. Faubel has a big tenor voice (the original Curly, was a dramatic baritone, a small man whose magnificent stature was always implied through Alfred Drake’s stage presence), a supple and agile body and that broad and handsome face. He never made me believe there was any undertone of threat in his scene with the villain, Jud Fry. His sense of compassion for a dead man was non-existent and the stupid mock trial (Hammerstein’s fault and no one else’s) showed him to have no compassion for the dead, so he remained as callow a fellow at the end of the play as he was in the beginning.
The very earnest and mostly understandable Ado Annie Carnes was played with joie de vivre by Chasten Harmon while her two most ardent swains, Ali Hakim, the peddler and Will Parker, the cowboy are played by Christopher Gurr and Matt Gibson. The three added some much needed comic relief to the more sober main story. Gibson as the ardent cowboy who cannot seem to hold on to fifty dollars is just terrific.
Kristine Zbornik was wonderful as Aunt Eller, the larger-than-life cupid whose 1969 embodiment by Margaret Hamilton is my all time favorite. Zbornik makes good use of her edgy voice in supplying lines of threat, love and an ardent appreciation for the human qualities of all men. Austin Durant is a stand-out player as the villainous Jud Fry whose ardor is cooled by the folks who surround him. Durant was as effective in Laurie’s dream ballet as in any other scene in the show and his baritone voice was well used in his solo "Lonely Room" one of Hammerstein’s best lyrics for this or any other show.
Gerry McIntyre choreography throughout recalls the style of Agnes de Mille whose work used to be mandatory in revivals of the show. McIntyre uses her influence but seem to have supplied a lot of his own ideas to the musical numbers and his work is superb.
The set design work of Brett J. Banakis is definitely over-the-top from the top of the show and the too often used glimpses of the stage-house and its crew added nothing to the show except the reveal of it being a show. Michael Chybowski’s lighting design was very effective and the costumes by David Murin were traditional and sometimes overly so, Ado Annie’s hats being a case in point.
Director Eric Hill has provided a fussy production of a show that usually presents simplicity as a virtue. He has grafted caricature onto his characters which removes them somewhat from a level of empathy that the audience needs to feel if the show is to succeed. Laurey’s poutiness, for example, should come off as insipid flirtation but here it is much more concerned with self-protection and a ridiculous lack of understanding of normal human interaction. Lynn Riggs characters are very human and very straightforward and Hill’s versions of them are sometimes beyond the point of humanity and exposed to a sort of internal parody. I found it hard to believe that any of them could feel the emotions the show and its songs demands of them.
I said above that I don’t like "Oklahoma!" I think understand it well enough to know that the simple folk of this play just don’t interest me. In this production I found them even less to my liking. I was not moved, nor was I intrigued or involved with them in any way. A woman two rows behind me said, quite audibly during the dream ballet, "when does this act end, anyway?" and that was my sentiment exactly. But the music is nice.
Laurie, played by Diane Phelan; photo: Abby Le Page
Christopher Gurr, Walter Hudson and Chasten Harmon; photo Abby LePage
Austin Durant and Jarid Faubel; photo: Abby LePage
Oklahoma! plays at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Massachusetts through July 20. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line at www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.