When trying to hear a song, watch a video, or learn more about the musical Oklahoma!, one cannot simply type the word “Oklahoma” into a search engine. There is something huge that differentiates the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic from America’s 46th state.
It’s an exclamation point!
As a writer, punctuation is always important to me. As a theatre goer, it will come to mean a lot to you too if you venture to the Palisade Playhouse to see their positively charming production of Oklahoma!. The love and respect the cast shows for the iconic material firmly places the exclamation point at the end of the title as it will at the end of the afternoon or evening you experience the show.
In a time when innovative, complex shows like Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and The Band’s Visit are among the top-grossing productions on Broadway every week, it might make you wonder why shows from the Golden Age like Oklahoma! are worth revisiting for the Palisade Playhouse and director Chelsea Fredrickson.
Oklahoma! is only the second in the long legacy of the “book musical” that began with Show Boat in 1927 and has evolved to pave the way for other shows like the upcoming “new” musicals Frozen, Mean Girls, and Pretty Woman.
When Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in 1943, it was still uncommon for a musical to include songs that progressed the plot. This show even took that convention a step further by including a climactic ballet at the end of Act I to further explore the characters’ emotions.
Some might scoff at the existence of those last three aforementioned shows as attempts to cash in on well-known properties, but this is another trend set by this show and its creators. Oklahoma! marked the first collaboration of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/book writer Oscar Hammerstein II and, like virtually all of their projects, has an established source material, Lynn Riggs’s 1931 play Green Grows the Lilacs.
The key to Fredrickson’s success with this production is that she does not get in the way of what the show is at its core.
Oklahoma! is the epitome of quaint. It treats women like property to be bought and sold by the men in their lives. The tense final moments of its first act hinge on an imaginary death featured in a dream fueled by a magical potion. It’s a little ludicrous, but there is still a lot of fun and wholesomeness to be found in whole of the piece.
With the help of choreographer Toni Dobransky, Fredrickson uncovers each of those joyful moments and milks them like a cow. The stage comes alive whenever the large ensemble bursts into glorious song or energetic movement. And, without the accompaniment of a live orchestra, music director Matt Belliston deserves lots of credit for the smile that those group numbers brought to my face.
For a show that is noteworthy for the innovation of plot-driven musical motifs, the story is still relatively thin. Basically, there are six young people embroiled in two separate love triangles (one more comedic, the other more dramatic) along with random townspeople who chime in intermittently to raise the stakes, tell a joke, or sing a song.
The spine of the show is the conflict between the strapping cowboy Curly (Carmen LoPresti) and the disturbed farmhand Jud Fry (Erik Thompson) over the affections of the angelic Laurey (Tess Walsh). LoPresti and Walsh play doubles hard-to-get nicely in the opening scenes, but they’re both best when their magnificent voices join forces on dreamy duets like “People Will Say We’re in Love”.
As is the norm for shows of this genre (in any era, regardless of the actors portraying them), the two-dimensional romantic leads are overshadowed by the more colorful supporting characters. As Will Parker, Seth Laidlaw is endlessly winsome. His swoon-worthy vocals and convincing dopiness make Ado Annie’s (Candice Fisher) on-again-off-again feelings for him very understandable. Jill Stewart’s animated expressions and deft comedic timing prevent Aunt Eller from being the shrill buzzkill she’s written as. It’s clear that, without Aunt Eller around, things would be even more dire for our heroes, and I think the same can be said for Stewart’s memorable stage presence.
No matter your background, there’s something comforting about the image of someone sitting in a rocking chair outside their home humming a familiar tune. We can all identify with the feeling of carving out our own personal, imperfect paradise from the big, busy world that surrounds us. I believe this warm sentiment is timelessly captured in Oklahoma!. The Palisade Playhouse production ensures that when you find yourself on your own metaphorical porch in your own metaphorical rocking chair that the song you’ll be humming is one of the terrific Rodgers and Hammerstein gems featured in this score.
Oklahoma! runs at the Palisade Playhouse until March 10. For tickets and more information, click here.
Categories: Archived Reviews