In 1931 there was a play by Lynn Riggs called Green Grow the Lilacs. It was never particularly well received and today it is all but forgotten, except for one important detail: it became the basis for the 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma!
Oklahoma! was the first production that paired Rodgers with Hammerstein and is today generally considered to be the one Broadway musical that changed the face of the American musical theatre. This weekend, a new production of Oklahoma! became the season opener for the Arizona Broadway Theatre, and it kick starts the company’s season in grand style.
For those unfamiliar, ABT is a first class dinner theatre in Peoria, but unlike most dinner theatres across the country, ABT has set a criterion that other dinner theatres would do well to emulate. For one thing, the dining before the show and the theatrical production that follows are two distinctly different areas of equally high but separate standards. As mentioned in previous reviews, the quality of service and dining has been consistently good, and for Oklahoma! that quality is certainly maintained, but part of the fun of this particular dining experience is that throughout the meal patrons are treated to the wind swept sounds of a continual breeze in the background blowing over the plains while on stage, curtains gently billow in front of an abstract design of a panoramic backdrop that will later become an important part of the show’s scenic design by Paul Black. It’s a surprisingly effective beginning, adding atmosphere to the feel of a wide open territory that will eventually become Oklahoma!
The plot is a simple one and for the most part revolves around the events of one day, from early morning to late evening, with a story conclusion that takes place some three weeks later. Cowboy Curly (Peter Carrier) loves young Laurey (Jennifer Molly Bell) and wants to take her to the social that evening, but there’s competition. The farm hand, Jud Fry (Brad Rupp) has become obsessed with Laurey and intends to maker her his own, by force if necessary.
Because of the conflict between the three leads, Oklahoma! never shies from drama, but there is also plenty of humor delivered by another three characters, the simple but well meaning Will (Sean Widener), the simple but borderline promiscuous Ado Annie (Sarah Ledtke) and the traveling entrepreneur from Persia, Ali Hakim (Bobby Underwood). The comedy of Underwood’s performance is further underlined by the fact that both his body movements and the sound of his accented voice, particularly when it rises, are oddly reminiscent of Manuel from TV’s Fawlty Towers.
Several past productions of the show often find Laurey’s dream sequence a problem. The scene is either cut in size or omitted altogether for the simple reason that the ballet can prove too challenging. Not so for ABT. Laurey’s dream is here in its entirety and it works. The changing of the dream’s tone is altered by the style of Kurtis W. Overby’s choreography and Tim Monson’s lighting design. When the threatening Judd enters the dream, the lighting bathes the backdrop with a menacing red, but the moment the character exits, the lighting brightens and the choreography becomes lighter once again.
When casting the original 1943 production, Hammerstein broke theatre rules by insisting that his performers were singers who could act rather than the other way around. Director Kiel Klaphake may not have insisted on exactly the same rules for all of his characters, but when it comes to the three principle players, Curly, Laurey and Judd, he’s found voices that make the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein songs soar; People Will Say We’re in Love and Poor Jud is Dead are two of the standouts.
While a younger set may find the mode somewhat old-fashioned when compared to the pulsating sound of a modern rock musical, the quality of Richard Rodgers’ melodies, the wit and style of Hammerstein’s clever lyrics, plus the clarity of the singing and the purity of the sound as delivered in this production by Carrier, Rupp and Molly Bell ensure that classic musicals such as Oklahoma! should and will last forever.