|Rhett Gutter and Samantha Bruce. All Photos by Diane Sobolewski|
It’s March 31, 1943. The lights dim in the
, there’s a melodious overture, and
then…a big production number to get the audience’s juices flowing? Nope.
Instead, a lone cowboy appears on stage and sings about how lovely the morning
is and how everything’s going his way. Over the course of the two-plus hours of
the premiere of “ St. James Theatre !”
American musical theater was changed forever. The musical, the first
collaboration of Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and
lyrics), cemented the dominance of the “book” musical as the predominant format
for what followed, termed the “Golden Age” of American musicals. Oklahoma
Flash forward seven-plus decades and that same cowboy walks up one of the aisles at Goodspeed Opera House, once again proclaiming that it’s a beautiful morning. What follows, directed by Jenn Thompson, is a faithful, delightful recreation of the 1943 classic, providing ample evidence why the initial production was so ground-breaking.
Based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs, a less than successful effort about settlers in the Indian (read Oklahoma) Territory circa 1906, the plot of “Oklahoma!” is simplicity itself. Cowboy Curly (a confident Rhett Gutter) is in love with farm-girl Laurey (an engaging Samantha Bruce), but she’s playing hard to get. Lurking on the farm run by Laurey’s Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell) is farmhand Jud Fry (a sufficiently menacing Matt Faucher), who covets Laurey when he’s not sifting through his “French” postcards.
There’s another romance going on, actually a love triangle of sorts, with Ado Annie (a pert and vivacious Gizel Jimenez) at the top and cowboy Will Parker (Jake Swain) and peddler Ali Hakim (a dead-on Matthew Curiano) vying for her affections. That, in essence, is about it, save for a bit of contention between ranchers and farmers. We’re not talking Ibsen of Chekhov here – it’s basic soap opera stuff dealing with the burning questions: Will Curly eventually win Laurey’s hand or will Jud have his evil way with her? Will
for Will or Ali? Ado
|Gizel Jimenez and Matthew Curiano|
|Rhett Gutter and Matt Faucher lamenting that "Pore Jud is Daid"|
Take, for example, the scene between Curly and Jud late in the first act. Laurey, playing her coy hand a bit too far, has announced that she has agreed to go with Jud to the box social, which motivates Curly to confront Jud in the farmhand’s hovel. What follows is Curly’s witty put-down of Jud in the form of a dirge, “Pore Jud is Daid,” which envisions Jud hanging himself (Curly has conveniently strung up a noose) and the grief of the mourners, all of whom, so Curly suggests, never truly understood Jud. Curly’s effort is so effective that Jud joins Curly in lamenting his own passing. A song like this would never have appeared in the bright and breezy musical comedies of the 20s and 30s.
As is almost expected of Goodspeed Musicals productions, the ensemble work is just about superb, much of it choreographed by Katie Spelman. Three numbers stand out: the “
” sequence in which Will let’s people know that
everything’s up-to-date in that city and then introduces dances that are all
the rage in that metropolis with a seven-story skyscraper; “The Farmer and The
Cowman” number, which opens the second act. Here, Thompson and Spelman have
just about the entire, substantial cast up on the somewhat constricted stage,
all whirling and twirling (I heard one exiting audience member comment: “It’s a
wonder someone didn’t fall off the stage.”) Kansas
|Cowboys dance with the farmers' daughters, |
farmers dance with the cowboys' gals
The leads and supporting actors in the cast are all excellent, but special mention should be made of Jimenez’s performance as Ado Annie and Curiano as Ali. Jimenez ably captures
’s somewhat unbridled libido (“I Cain’t
Say No!”) while, at the same time, displays her character’s inherent innocence,
not to mention that she’s called upon to do some almost death-defying flips as Ali
and Will show how Persians say goodbye and cowboys say hello. Ado
Curiano, as Ali, provides much of the comic relief, and he does so with a droll, world-weariness that is delightful. Yes, Ali is a lothario, but he has trouble skipping town before an irate father pulls a shotgun on him. With great timing and emotive body language he ably conveys the plight of a ladies man not slick enough to skedaddle while the getting’s good.
|Jake Swain and Gizel Jimenez discuss whether it's "all or nothin'"|
runs through September 27 in an extended run. For tickets or more information
call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org. Oklahoma