It's been almost 75 years since Oklahoma! by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein opened on Broadway, yet it still manages to exert a pull on the average audience. The reasons for this are manifold, beginning with the undoubted brilliance of the master song craftsmen Rodgers and Hammerstein.
But in addition to all those wonderful tunes ("Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "People Will Say We're in Love"), there are structural aspects of this show that you just don't see anymore. Among the most notable are the dance numbers. And since director Terri J. Kent is adept at staging all varieties of the American musical, she gets virtually everything right in this production.
Take the dancing. Choreographer John R. Crawford-Spinelli creates a fluid and evocative metaphorical ballet that closes the first act in a way that seems odd these days. It is a quiet and reflective moment instead of a bombastic vocal volley, and it is entrancing as performed by this young cast. In fact, all the dance numbers lift this play out of the ordinary and the Porthouse company is earning a well-deserved reputation for dancing excellence in many of their productions.
Aside from the hoofing, surprises still abound in this oft-seen show, including how richly drawn the characters are. After all, Oklahoma! was staged originally during World War II, and was meant, among other things, as a pro-America tonic for a population battered by a war whose outcome was still in doubt. But instead of writing an up-with-the-USA propaganda screed, R&H fashioned a play that contained heroes you could root for and a three-dimensional villain who was more than just a scary figure in the night.
Indeed, the ranch hand Jud is a coarse and blunt man. And when he develops a liking for Aunt Eller's niece Laurey, it's definitely a cringe-worthy situation. And Laurey leads Jud on, just enough to make the apple of her eye Curly, another ranch hand, jealous enough to make a move. It's clearly an unfair battle between Curly and Jud, but Jud isn't hip enough to see that, and that leads to tragedy.
That conflict between Jud and Curly is not as powerful as it should be, due to an imbalance in acting styles. Sam Johnson creates a fearsome Jud, from his stalking posture and stride to his menacing facial expressions. Johnson resides deep in Jud's lonely persona, and that triggers the fear and insecurity of those around him. So when he sings "Lonely Room," Hammerstein's lyrics hit home: "The floor creaks/The door squeaks/There's a fieldmouse nibblin' on a broom/And I set by myself/Like a cobweb on a shelf/By myself in a lonely room."
Unfortunately, that intensity is not matched by Matthew Gittins, who plays Curly. Of course, Curly is a substantially different character, bright and upbeat with an impish sense of humor. But instead of spelunking that person, Gittins acts with the knowledge of what he's doing instead of just doing it. It is a self-congratulatory performance of a guy who saw what he did a second ago, liked what he saw, and wants you to know he liked what he saw. This doesn't allow the audience to discover Curly's personality in the moment, and that steals some of this iconic show's impact.
As Laurey, Rebecca Rand sings sweetly and handles her character's flashes of angry, whether feigned or not, with reasonable aplomb. But she could stand to make Laurey a touch more interesting so that the yearnings of both Curly and Jud would be better motivated.
In supporting roles, Joey Fantana has a nice comedic slant as Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler who gets in too deep with Ado Annie Carnes, the town pushover. Samantha Russell is almost a bit too young and fresh to play Ado Annie, who long ago said "ado" to her virginity, as she explains in the classic "I Cain't Say No." If what she sings is true, there should be a bit more tread worn off Annie's romantic tires than it appears.
The show is anchored splendidly by Lenne Snively, whose Aunt Eller not only owns the ranch but owns the stage whenever she's on it. In a similar way, Christoopher Tuck lends a bit of snap and sass to Will Parker, who vies for the attention of the aforementioned Annie. And as always, the hysterical laugh of Gertie Cummings is an auditory torture, this time delivered by Kelli-Ann Paterwic.
In one misstep, director Kent extends the freeze after the "Yeow!" at the end of the penultimate song "Oklahoma," leading the audience to think, understandably, that the show is over at that point. It's an unnecessary way to cadge additional applause for a show that doesn't need to fake out the audience to curry approval.
Even with a couple wrinkles, it's always good to revisit the genius of Rogers and Hammerstein that is on display in Oklahoma! Out of all the musicals that have appended an exclamation point to their title, this is the one that truly earned that particular punctuation, by changing how musicals were done by fully integrating book, music and dance. That deserves a "Yeow!" all by itself.