Loosely based on the play, Green Grow the Lilacs, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! has an unusual history. The 1943 theatrical piece was one of the first “book musicals,” where songs, dance and plot were used to create a dramatic experience, rather than to provide pure escapism for the audience.
While there are numerous popular musical numbers, many feel that the 20th century romance is too light to be considered in the same league as other collaborations from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s, including The Sound of Music, The King and I and South Pacific. Though the tone of the Welk Resorts Theatre production of Oklahoma! is generally upbeat, there is enough edge to make this interpretation a distinct one.
Set in 1906,with period appropriate costumes from Janet Pitcher and set from Doug David, the plot focuses on two love triangles. Curly McLain (Allen Everman) is an optimistic cowboy, who teases and adores the witty Laurey Williams (Kailey O’Donnell). Curly attempts to ask her out to a “box social dance,” but he becomes jealous upon discovering Laurey has agreed to go with Jud Fry (Will Huse), a creepy hired hand on her Aunt Eller’s (Robin Lavalley) ranch.
Meanwhile, a cheerful, but naïve cowboy, Will Parker (Andrew J. Koslow), intends to marry his girlfriend, Ado Annie (Sydney Blair). Little does he know that Ado is torn between him and a hapless Persian peddler, Ali Hakim (Ariel Neydavoud).
Director and choreographer, Dan Mojica, has a deft touch with his staging. He has a knack for handling comical sequences and big musical numbers such as “Kansas City” and “The Farmer and the Cowman.”
There is not much new that can be said about the classic tunes with music from Richard Rodgers and lyrics from Oscar Hammerstein II. Led by a four-person orchestra with musical director Justin Gray on piano, the melodies are still beautifully rich and the words bristle with intelligence. The ensemble finds creative ways to make the melodies feel impassioned and vital.
Everman has a booming voice and gives Curly a friendly personality. He seemed to have opening night jitters barely cracking a smile singing “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin,’” but he became more comfortable after his early interactions with O’Donnell and Lavalley.
As Curly’s romantic interest, Laurey, O’Donnell has a lovely soprano voice and a sense of sarcasm that is more amiable than meanspirited. Her vocals on “Many a New Day” and “People Will Say We’re in Love” are full of feeling and grace.
Koslow brings so much giddiness and enthusiasm to his role as Will, that his attitude ends up being infectious. His energetic and swift dancing makes him one of the best movers in the entire cast.
Although far from a vocally difficult role, Blair has the comedy skills to make Ado a delightfully flawed woman. A highlight of her performance is her rendition of “All Er Nuthin,” where she includes many visual gags.
The major reason why this Oklahoma! is not just a sunny diversion is the casting of Huse as Jud. Instead of depicting him as a melodramatic villain, he makes the loner a tortured soul who is genuinely terrifying. His rendition of “Lonely Room” is uncomfortable, for he gives viewers a glimpse into the disturbing mind of the dangerous recluse. [php snippet= 2]
Mojica casted several talented actors to play supporting comedic roles. Lavalley, Neydavoud and RC Sands all have uproarious moments whenever they are on stage.
I should mention that the extended “Dream Ballet” that ends Act I has never been my favorite part of the tale. I always felt that this renowned section was overlong and slowed down the action. Although it is still not my favorite segment, I will give credit to Arielle Meads for her elegant dancing as Dream Laurey and for Jennifer Edwards’s lighting design, which helps build the fantasy sequence to an intense crescendo.
High spirited and with warm themes of desires of the heart and camaraderie, Oklahoma! is just as appealing as ever. It is practically impossible to not have at least a couple of the songs stuck in your head after the curtain call.