Musical Theatre Southwest's Oklahoma! Redefines Old Classic with Heart and Relevance
Oklahoma!, one of the finest musicals every written, is the kind of entertainment that leaves an audience feeling satiated. With music by Richard Rodgers and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Oklahoma! is the most produced musical of all time. The public began its love affair with the musical in 1943 when it opened on Broadway. And, while many people think of the show as sugary sweet, it is actually based on Lynn Riggs' dark semi-autobiographical 1931 drama Green Grow the Lilacs. The show speaks to the human experience and the trials faced by rural folk trying to forge a new life in the Oklahoma Territory (formerly Indian Territory) with statehood looming before them. This nation was built on blood, sweat and tears, and only the strongest survived. Disagreements and jealousies were settled the "manly" way-with gunfights. Oklahoma! is also a musical about tolerance, a theme that still rings true in today's turbulent world, as "primitive violence" still bubbles underneath society's surface.
Oklahoma! recounts the story of feisty Aunt Eller and her niece Laurey. Laurey and Curly, a cocksure cowboy, are secretly in love each other. While Curly and Laurey hide their love to avoid gossip, Jud, the burly, disturbed hired hand, doesn't hide his obsessive interest in Laurey. Jud's pent-up emotions broil and they are the source of Curly's disdain for Jud. Jud also gives Laurey the creeps, but she agrees to allow Jud to drive her to the lunchbox social out of fear of the repercussions if she doesn't. In the meantime, farmer Andrew Carnes' daughter Ado Annie is a girl "who cain't say no." She's set to marry Ali Hakim, a traveling peddler, when her ex-love Will Parker, generally na´ve, but full of energy and big dance moves, arrives back on the scene from his recent visit to Kansas City. There he learned and saw a whole lot of new things. Ali Hakim, forced into marriage with Ado by her father, sets out to help Will win Ado back. This is the source of the comic relief in a show which focuses mostly on love, hardship and jealousy.
MTS's Oklahoma!, under the direction of Vic Browder, is delightful. Browder has added lines and reconfigured the order of scenes to tell Oklahoma!'s story from the perspective of Aunt Eller. The completely unexpected staging of the overture is an action-packed tableau reminiscent of those set by traveling Shakespearean troubadours, but more along the lines of "I've got a barn and a piano. Let's put on a show!" It engages the audience from the outset and holds us through to the final curtain. Apart from minor changes in the production, fortunately, it is still the Oklahoma! we all know and love.
It is in the details that MTS makes their version thoughtful and wonderfulfrom real buttermilk in Aunt Eller's churn, to the actors' firm grasp of the lyrics' subtle subtext. In particular, Matthew Naegeli, who plays Curly, finds wonderful meanings in the lyrics. His "... and an old weepin' willer is laughin' at me" line clearly refers to Aunt Eller and is utterly enjoyable. Browder's well thought out direction allows for making lyrics and lines that musical theatre aficionados know like the backs of their hands seem suddenly new and exciting. When we first see Ali Hakim, he is pushing his cart as he walks alongside Ado Annie. He utters "Ado Annie, you're sweeter than cream, and I gotta have cream or die!" one of the lines from Ado's signature song "I Cain't Say No." Though stilted, it had me thinking "Did he just say that?" as my lips began to curl into a smile.
Oklahoma!'s characters have become such an indelible part of the American cultural landscape that it really doesn't matter whom a director casts in the roles. The characters always seem to breathe life into the actors instead of the other way around. That's why every actress who has ever played Ado Annie indicates in the same way when she sings "nix" and "slap." These elements always elicit happiness in the vein of a child opening a holiday gift that he already knows he's getting. It's the "givens" in Oklahoma! which make the show fun. Do I even need to mention the obligatory cheesy looks that actors give each other and the audience when they sing the title song as they boldly anticipate the vocal punch of the "kuh" after the "O?" Oh they're there all right!
In spite of the huge talent pool that the MTS production boasts, the attractive and gifted Kate Sarff and Matthew Naegeli, while individually right and likeable in the roles of Laurey and Curly, have very little chemistry onstage. Sarff seems too worldly and tough-certainly too tough for Naegeli's Curly, who seems too young and not worldly enough for Laurey. In order to buy their long unrequited attraction, the heavy flirtation must begin from the moment Curly and Laurey find themselves onstage together. In this production, the seduction doesn't really seem to start until the end of "Surrey With the Fringe on the Top," and I'm not sure I ever bought into their chemistry at all. Vocally, though, both Sarff and Naegeli shine. Naegeli's "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" is a true highlight that you will never want to hear end. His rich, lilting baritone voice is perfectly suited to the character as are his dirty-blonde curls, dimples and empathetic eyes. Not quite the swaggerer one would expect from a Curly, Naegeli is a fine actor.
Jud Fry, perhaps one of the most complicated characters in the Rodgers and Hammerstein library, is played with just the right amount of angst and darkness by J.B. Tuttle. His physicality couldn't be better for Jud, but he seems a little too refined at the outset of the show. His line delivery seemed more like Robert Wagner in "Hart to Hart" than a dirty, mentally disturbed farm hand, but Tuttle finds his footing during the smokehouse scene in "Poor Jud is Daid" and "Lonely Room." Though more of an actor than a singer, Tuttle brings a strength and passion to "Lonely Room," which is reminiscent of Rod Steiger's performance in the film version of Oklahoma!. It's no secret that directors traditionally cut "Lonely Room" because actors who play Jud can't sing. Though less lyrical than I have heard in the past, kudos go to Tuttle for handling the song very well. This is his first singing role ever and he shows that he has the stamina to pull it off.
Best acting honors go to Julia Thudium as Aunt Eller. While the character in age is well beyond Thudium's years, she, with a bit of makeup, embodies the strength, empathy and spunk that is Aunt Eller. Clearly a seasoned actress, Thudium's singing talent matches her acting ability, making this performance one of the best I have seen in a musical in Albuquerque. I was also delighted to once again see Tahirih de la Cerda-Koller on the Albuquerque stage. Her exceptional robust vocals, doe eyes, auburn curls and buxom deliciousness, combined with her sweetness and vulnerability, are the makings of a terrific Ado Annie. Her chemistry with both Mark Hisler, who plays Ali Hakim, and Tom Allen, as Will Parker, is unmistakable. While Persian traders were all over the American Southwest in the days that Oklahoma! takes place, there is a sense that this Ali is not what he seems. Hisler is a marvelous choice for Hakim. The fact that he is more "bagel" than "bauble" adds to the character's humor and we tend to believe he is more the charlatan than the Persian. Hisler is a fantastic actor, who finds the funny in his lines and milks them for every thing they're worth.
Tom Allen, though a wonderful actor and capable singer, seems completely miscast as Will Parker. Obviously a strong dancer, Allen plays Will with 21st century hormones, which seems out of place. His portrayal also lacks the naivetÚ and youth that the character conjures in the mind. I think, perhaps, that Joey Montoya (based on his past theatrical appearances), a vivacious member of the ensemble, would have made a more believable Will with his fresh, youthful look and his exceptional dancing and singing chops. Regardless, Allen's energy and stage presence make him very likeable and his relationship with Ado is believable.
Browder and Lina Ramos, music director, have assembled a wonderful ensemble for the show. Bridget Kelly is the quintessential Gertie Cummings with her impeccable horse laugh, which ignites gut-busting laughter from the audience. Erin Allen, who has a number of dance solos and plays "Dream Laurey" in the "Dream Ballet," is exquisite onstage. Browder's interpretation of the dream sequence, usually my least favorite part of the show, is paced perfectly with impeccable dancing and lighting.
The set, also designed by Browder, is simplistic and beautifully executed, as are Paula Steinberg's costumes. In particular, Dream Laurey's dress, which was created by Peggy Wells, is stunning and its flow makes it easy to lure the audience into the ether of Laurey's sub-consciousness. The subdued color tones of the costuming give this usually bright and happy-go-lucky musical a darker and more realistic feel.
Overall, Musical Theatre Southwest's production of Oklahoma! will fill you with joy and have you humming in your surrey all the way home. Oklahoma! plays through Sunday, March 27 at the African American Performing Arts Center at the New Mexico Fair Grounds in Albuquerque. Tickets can be purchased by calling the MTS box office at 505-265-9119. For more information, visit www.musicaltheatresw.com.
-- Paul Niemi