Directed by Fred Hanson
Through July 7
The Ogunquit Playhouse
It has been seventy-five years since Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein collaborated on their first play and changed musical theatre forever. Oklahoma!, with a bit of refreshing, has held up well and the latest production now playing at the Ogunquit Playhouse gives this great work the respect it deserves.
The play about the growing pains of the soon to be 46th state takes place, with the exception of the final scene, in one day. There are two romantic stories, the one between Curly (Stephen Mark Lukas) and Laurey (Taylor Quick), and Ado Annie (Chessa Metz) and Will (Colby Dezelick), as well as the conflicts that arise as two groups, the cowboys and the farmers have to learn to live together and share the land. There is also the matter of Judd (Timothy John Smith), the brooding and scary loner, who doesn’t fit in.
As the overture plays, beautiful scenes are projected on the curtain that give us a sense of the vastness of the Oklahoma territory. The opening scene, which was a departure from usual theatrical formula at the time in which the play first hit Broadway, shows Aunt Eller (Susann Fletcher) churning butter while, from offstage Curly begins singing Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’, which is as effective now as it must have been in 1943.
The sets which include a cabin, windmill, cornfield and a backdrop that seems to go on forever are constant reminders of the vastness of and challenges faced by those building a community on this new land.
The score is still as fresh as the morning dew on the cornfield. Stephen Mark Lukas and Taylor Quick in the leading roles combine the acting chops and voices that their parts demand. It is said that Rodgers and Hammerstein would cast singers who could act rather than the usual model of finding actors who could sing. I’m not sure what formula was used here, but it certainly works.
This production is based on the 1998 London revival, which ironically did not transfer directly to Broadway because Actors Equity demanded only American actors be allowed to play in it. The choreography by Susan Stroman is the same used in that revival, and is led here with some additions by choreographer Ginger Thatcher who has worked with Stroman. It is important this was handled well as Oklahoma! is as much a dance piece as it is the musical, and Ms Thatcher gets it done darn well.
The dream sequence ballet ending Act I is breathtaking.
The dream sequence Out Off My Dreams-Ballet ending Act I is breathtaking. Ms Thatcher along with this amazingly talented cast have given audiences a scene that will be talked about for years. Atmospheric, emotionally jarring, and just magnificent. At the performance I attended the audience was in awe as they stepped out for intermission.
The play, that at moments teeters on the brink of sentimentality but never goes over the edge also has a dark side to it. The character Judd who comes across as creepy and threatening, and with good reason, never fits in with the others. In all of the pieces I have read about the play I have not read any that show sympathy with him. In this production Timothy John Smith gives us all of the darkness of Judd, but also an undercurrent of how things may have been different if the others had made an effort to understand him. I’m reminded a bit of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny. Could a sympathetic ear have made a difference? After all, early in the play it is Curly who shows a dark side when, in jealously over Judd’s escorting Laurey to the box social, he visits Judd and attempts to convince him to commit suicide (Poor Judd His Daid). While the song is funny it is also quite disturbing, and the Calibanish Judd sees through it. Not exactly an invite to join in with the community. Mr. Smith brings more complexity to this character then I have seen before, and he does it very subtly. Quite impressive.
All of the musical numbers are memorable with People Will Say We’re In Love, The Farmer And The Cowmen, The Surrey With Fringe On Top, and the finale Oklahoma! being particularly outstanding.
Oklahoma! is a wonderful musical but it is more. The story has many levels to it, and it is one that can make us think about the challenges of working together to build and maintain a community. In a way we are all farmers and cowmen who have to work on being friends. It is also a reminder that being able to get along does not mean not having differences, but instead to respect those differences. It also means striving to understand the outsider.
With cornfields that literally reach out to the actors, an unbeatable score, a cast that abounds with talent, lighting and scenery that are beyond impressive, this is a theatre experience not to be missed. Director Fred Hanson has pulled it all together and the Ogunquit Playhouse stage is the perfect theater to witness it in.
Every so often I like to remind my readers that the Ogunquit Playhouse is not summer theatre. It is a full blown theatrical company that rivals Broadway in quality. As is seen in Oklahoma!, you get top talent with a production team that knows how to out on a play. And, it all takes place in a beautiful and comfortable theater. If you haven’t been before, don’t hesitate to take a drive up to beautiful Ogunquit, Maine and see for yourself. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein would be pleased. You’ll leave the theater saying “Oklahoma!, You’re Okay!”