When Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! premiered in 1943, it was groundbreaking for Broadway musicals in many ways. A few years ago, English Director Trevor Nunn revived the show, and it was a hit in London, but a flop in New York. A non-Equity national tour is now traversing the country in a production based on Nunn's, and the result is a mostly satisfying and entertaining show, as witnessed currently at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Oklahoma!, based on the book Green Grow The Lilacs, chronicles the lives of ranchers and farmers living in the Oklahoma territory in the early 1900s. The plot surrounds two love triangles. At the forefront are sensitive cowboy Curly, spirited tomboy Laurie, and the unstable farmhand Jud Fry. Instilling some comic relief is a secondary group consisting of not-too-bright cowboy Will Parker, the romantically inclined Ado Annie, and traveling peddler Ali Hakim.
The score by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II is one of the best known in all of the theater and includes timeless classics such as "Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'," "I Cain't Say No," "People Will Say We're In Love," and the title number. Rodgers' instantly memorable melodies and Hammerstein's always efficient and thoughtful lyrics were never finer than here, in their first collaboration.
The book for Oklahoma! has romance, conflict, humor, and history. If the story has a few too many "fluff" moments and doesn't reach the level of passionate emotion that some modern musicals do, Hammerstein's work is nonetheless a lesson in professionalism and set the standard for years to follow.
Because this is a non-Equity tour, the direction and choreography can't be credited to Trevor Nunn and Susan Stroman, though their work on the recent London/New York productions is clearly recreated by Fred Handson (director) and Ginger Thatcher (choreographer). Nunn provides a darker and more serious take on the classic. Stroman's dances are visually breathtaking and athletic as usual (and vary from the well known Agnes de Mille originals), but it seems as though we've seen it all from her before. Whether these changes by Nunn and Stroman from the standard approach are viewed as improvements or liabilities is in the eye of the beholder, but at least some fresh ideas and considerate thought has been given to these elements. It should also be noted that the running time of the touring production has been slightly trimmed as compared to the recent New York version. John Mezzio skillfully conducts a scaled-back nine-piece orchestra.
Leading the cast is Brandon Andrus as Curly. He supplies sufficient charisma and an attractive tenor voice throughout. The most impressive performance, however, comes from Amanda Rose as Laurey. Ms. Rose convincingly transforms from awkward tomboy to a blossoming young woman. Her singing is first rate and, like the actresses playing Laurey in the other Nunn versions, she does her own superb dancing in the dream ballet sequence rather than giving way to a double. The villain of the show is Jud Fry, and Tom Lucca gives a powerfully sung and well-rounded portrayal of the unbalanced and volatile suitor for Laurey's affections.
As Ado Annie, Sarah Shahinian is appropriately flighty and funny and sings well. Daniel Robinson dances up a storm as Will Parker and shows off some nifty rope spinning as well, but his singing, though acceptable, is the weakest of the primary performers. Praiseworthy Colin Trahan gets all of the intended laughs out of the role of Ali Hakim. On opening night, understudy Patti McClure went on as Aunt Eller, and she was a steady presence. Oklahoma! also boasts a talented ensemble that excels in the dancing department.
The set and costumes by Anthony Ward are beautifully rendered, and the use of some miniature set pieces is amusing. The fine lighting by David Hersey lends to the overall atmospheric design.
Oklahoma! is a classic show which is always a safe bet to please audiences, and the current national tour is a solid presentation thanks to strong performances, bold creative choices, and good execution. Oklahoma! continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through April 25, 2004.