by Michael Bowen
Even Richard Rodgers had his doubts. In the spring of 1943, he was proud of the melodies he'd written for a new musical called Away We Go!, but didn't like its chances. "Who ever heard of a successful 'cowboy' musical?" he complained. "Who wants to see chorus girls in long dresses? What kind of musical keeps the dancers offstage until almost halfway through the first act? Could anyone give a damn about a story whose burning issue was who takes whom to a box social?"
Rodgers hadn't reckoned on America's need for uplift while battling an Axis of evil. Away We Go!, retitled Oklahoma! (apparently, there was no wartime rationing of exclamation marks) proceeded to run for more than five years and 2,200 performances on Broadway.
The story of young lovers on the frontier succeeded because it blended a pleasing storyline, innovative dance, infectious tunes and optimistic lyrics. The challenge in producing yet another Oklahoma! (in 1994 alone, there were 900 different productions worldwide) is to bring those qualities alive again onstage. The current CdA Summer Theater production (running through Aug. 25) mostly makes the grade.
The plot involves two love-triangles. Beautiful blonde Laurey (played by Kelly Quinnett) spends so much time pretending not to like cowhand Curly (Mark Cotter) that she leaves herself open to being courted by the despicable hired hand, Jud (Ron Daum). Meanwhile, in choosing between sincere but simple-minded Will Parker (Christopher Moll) and the hapless con man Ali Hakim (Patrick Treadway), Ado Annie (Meghan Maddox) figures that the best man for her is, at the moment, whichever man she's with.
Maddox may give Ado Annie a squeaky voice and a daffy manner, but she acts and dances so well that she raises the secondary couple to the primary spot in our affections. She places her head in Quinnett's lap during "I Cain't Say No," as if to enlist some feminine help in fending off all those men she doesn't want to resist. For "All Er Nothin'," she partners Moll in a goofy dance duet, her character seemingly surprising herself for being so light on her feet.
As Annie's suitors -- one impressed by the world, the other weary of it -- Moll and Treadway exhibit great comic timing. So does Daum, rather surprisingly, in the Rod Steiger role of the heavy. He plays right along in "Pore Jud is Daid," Curly's vision of how the girls will flock to this troll once he's been planted in the earth (the daisies will smell different now, and hurry up, we're running out of ice). Daum also packs a lot of menace in the dream-ballet and auction scenes, nearly overcoming the musical's pretenses to tragedy and let's-get-it-over-with mood in the finale.
Like Daum, Quinnett is good at balancing humor with seriousness. In a mostly triumphant role -- we know right from the start that she and Curly belong together -- Quinnett is nevertheless capable of conveying Laurey's insecurities (in "Surrey with a Fringe on Top" and "Many a New Day"): What if married life isn't ideal? What if I never get married at all?
In his staging of the dream-ballet, Director Roger Welch underscores Laurey's fears. For example, when Dream Laurey (danced by Lauralyn McClelland) finds herself swept into the vulgarities of Jud's saloon, the dance-hall girls swish their petticoats lazily. It's a subtle note of indifferent Cabaret-style decadence brought into the Western territory.
Quinnett seems too presentational in her singing at times, offering a performance to an audience rather than representing (and inhabiting) a character who's focused on Curly and Jud and all the others. Still, her duet with Cotter in the reprise of "People Will Say We're in Love" is powerful.
Cotter, burly and barrel-chested, has the build for Jud more than for Curly the agile cowboy and steer-wrestler. But that same barrel chest of his allows for a smooth and welcoming voice, never more powerful than in the rousing title song. When he and 30 other Coeur d'Alene singers lurch from the sotto voce chanting of the territory's name, kick into high gear and punch the sky on the final note, the spectacle and the sound still send chills up listeners' spines.
The first audiences for Oklahoma! had to love the moment -- there was a war on, after all -- when Curly and chorus belted out, "Our hearts will belong to the land / And the land we belong to is grand." And just imagine: If Will Parker, circa 1900, could exclaim about everything being up to date in Kansas City, think how much more impressed he'd be if he were to see all the cars and planes and howitzers and tanks that the heartland was producing a half-century later.
By now, yet another half-century further on, we're involved in another, more amorphous war. With our DVDs and PDAs and SUVs, we're motivated to believe, along with the sassy Puerto Rican girls in West Side Story, that comfort is ours in America, OK by me in America. And gosh darn it, Oklahoma! lets us feel sure, at least for one night, that everything's up to date in Lake City.