Review: "Oklahoma" is A-OK

The show: "Oklahoma!" at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT.

First impressions: A terrific production of a Rodgers & Hammerstein chestnut done with exquisite taste, honesty and authenticity and performed by a solid cast. It's look is decidedly different for Goodspeed with the design accent on simplicity with the story  -- and Philip S. Rosenberg's  lighting against Wilson Chin''s open-skies backdrops are all you need. (But kill that damn bird in the meadow squawking before the show begins. It's not atmospheric. it's annoying.)

What's it about?: Curly want to take Lorie to a box social.

Doesn't sound much of a story: There's shadings in these broad homespun strokes and even breaks of humor but yes,  it's a rather long show, considering the slight plot -- but don't forget there's the extraordinary "dream" ballet that takes up nearly 15 minutes, originally staged  by Agnes de Mille and I wouldn't cut it for the world.  Here it is danced beautifully by the cast under the direction of choreographer Katie Spelman.


Before we go on, a side note: There are two significant Connecticut connections to the legendary musical. Composer Richard Rodgers had the idea for the musical when he saw a revival of the  play "Green Grow the Lillacs" by Oklahoma native Lynn Riggs in 1940 starring Betty Field, Mildred Natwick and Winston OKeefe at the Westport Country Playhouse, not far from his Fairfield home. He went to the show at the urging of Theresa Helburn of the Theatre Guild who felt it could be a musical. (As a side note to the side note: Movie director John Ford was credited with directing the play but, according to Max Will in his book chronicling the history of "Oklahoma!" Ford never attended rehearsals, nor ever made it to Westport.

Theresa Helburn

Theresa Helburn

After seeing the play and the blessings from the Theatre Guild , Rodgers was off and running with the show first going to partner Lorenz Hart, then when it became clear that Hart could not do the show, collaborating with Oscar Hammerstein on what would be another legendary partnership. 

The musical had its world premiere at New Haven's Shubert Theater in 1943 under the title "Away We Go!" (Apparently the producers loved the exclamation point.) The title change came when the show went to Boston on its way to Broadway.

Now back to the Goodspeed production: OK. With this production Jenn Thompson is now officially Goodspeed's new gem in its directing line-up. After turning that overworked trifle "Bye Bye Birdie" into last summer's guilty pleasure, Thompson has done similar alchemy here. She';s turn corn into gold. A swell one-two punch.

And Is the corn is as high as an....: Yep. Another smart scenic touch, too. The show curtain is savvy, setting not only the scene but the wide open spaces of the story not to mention a bit of history, too. 

And another sidenote: I hear that Goodspeed's production of "Bye Bye Birdie" is eying a national tour. But right noise it's at the track stage. 

But back to "Oklahoma!": The beauty of this production is that it's all of a piece. There's not a Hugh Jackman thrilling us as Curly or a Harry Groener wowing us as Will Parker, These are just regular (very talented) folks, just acting naturally, believably,  and singing in a way that fills the heart without pushing the comedy or corn or adding show biz turns that speaks more of Broadway than the Great Plains. Every ensemble member looked like he or she belonged to that  community.

So how are the leading players?: Samantha Bruce plays Laurie with smart tomboy appeal  and spunk. No petticoated gal she. Rhett Guter, who was so good as Conrad Birdie (and earning a Connecticut Critics Circle Award for it), is easy-going and appealing as Curly -- and the boy can dance, too, stepping into the dream ballet with confidence. I loved Gisela Jimenez' Ado Annie, playing the fun in the role and not so much the innocence. (I never believed the dumb deadpan take that is often the go-to trope.)

Alex Stewart stepped into the role of Will Parker on the night I saw it and did a fine job. Terry Burrell's Aunt Eller was strong, warm and full of grit (when she had to be). C. Mingo Long made the most of his moments as Annie's dad. Matthew Curiano navigated the tricky comic part of Ali Hakim, the peddler, with just the right balance, getting all the laughs without turning the character into a stereotype as written. 

For me the surprise was Matt Faucher as Jud Fry, not because he was so good but he made the character menacing without forgetting the troubled lonely man underneath. He also sings madness impressively. ("Sweeney Todd" next?) 

One more thing: The pit band and orchestrations were especially dynamic with orchestrations by Dan DeLange and additional dance orchestrations by David Chase. Really good-bump splendid,

Who will like the show?: Cowpokes. Slowpokes. Traditional musical lovers. And those looking for an evening of goodness and decency in our current crude, rude state of dis-union.

Who won't?: I imagine even those who prefer cutting edge musicals might succumb to its charms. And after 75 years, doing a damn ballet in a musical now seems radical.

Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: When "Oklahoma!" premiered in the middle of WWII it gave America just the lift that it needed, reminding Americans what they were fighting for, and what America was all about. This revival does the same thing now, with a mixed-race cast of young people, many from immigrant stock. it shows on stage the tapestry of faces that make up who we are and how we have grown. It also shows a community wanting to be a part of something bigger, and grander  -- not smaller and meaner. And at the end of the show when Laurie slaps that Oklahoma star on the American flag --  a wonderful touch in a show filled with special details, large and small-- it became this production's own exclamation point.

The basics: The show, whose run has been extended, will now play through Sept. 27.