The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! opened March 30, 1943, in New York and played for 2,212 performances. For 15 years, Oklahoma! held the record as the longest running musical in Broadway history. It was also a new trend in the American musical; it wove the songs into the story rather than stopping the action and having actors step out of the world of the play and sing. Names that would repeat in future Broadway plays, and in Hollywood, included Howard da Silva as Jud Fry, Celeste Holm as the playful Ado Annie and Alfred Drake who appeared in the title role of Curley McLain. It's a musical that has substance -- the plight of the farmer and the rancher underlies the lighter musical material. It also profiles a territory that wants statehood. There are many familiar songs such as "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning," "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and "People Will Say We're In Love."
Oklahoma! opened Friday at the Lake City Playhouse, and the director's notes repeat the word "fun" at least six times. The director wants the production to be a "show" and not theater. But I would like to remind the director that this IS theater, and not vaudeville or melodrama, which this production flirts with. Since Oklahoma! is the quintessential American musical, I think he should not "mess" with it. Director Dan Gookin alludes to the fact that we shouldn't mess with The Sound of Music or Man of La Mancha. I'm not sure why he decided you could "mess" with Oklahoma! However, even though there were moments of "fun" directorial choices that marred the show (indicated acting, songs with massive gestures), the actors (with the exception of one) somehow got caught up in the "reality" of the piece and let the "shtick" of the director disappear so they could soar into action.
Actors that deserve mention are Jeff Knapp as Jud Fry, Tyler Sherman as Ali Hakim, Don Lynn as Will Parker, Sandy Gookin as Ado Annie and Charles I. Gift as Curley. Knapp's Jud had a wonderful sense of restraint as the terrifying antagonist. Sherman as Hakim, one of the strongest actors on the stage, has charisma and understands the maxim, "less is more." Falling into the "more" category is Don Lynn's Will Parker, but he was so endearing that I didn't mind his slightly manic performance. He and Sandy Gookin as Ado Annie were a wonderful team of a couple always "in lust." Early on, Gift (who has a beautiful singing voice) let go of the gestures the director had imposed on him and found the core of Curley and did a very credible job following that serious note throughout the theatrical production.
Hampered by the director, but trying desperately to extricate themselves, Vicky Jo Carey as Aunt Eller and Candace Deaton as Laurey valiantly tried to live up to those roles. I sincerely hope that they will relax and become real people during the run of the show. Aunt Eller is the pivotal person of the play, and she must be serious, not an out-of-control character; Laurey needs to stop wringing her hands as though she was always in crisis (a trait of melodrama). Candace has a lovely voice and needs to just trust her instincts. The ensemble did a very good job maintaining especially during a frightening moment at the climax of the play when a pole fell down on the stage (and then later something fluttered down from above). Everyone maintained control and stayed in character. Good job, actors!
The band made a valiant try, but was thwarted by the fact that they were behind the actors (and behind a barrier). We couldn't see them, and they couldn't see the actors. It's amazing how well the singers did, not having a musical director to guide them. The sound was thin, but what can you expect with two violins, one person on woodwinds and one lonely trumpet? Warren Lee Adams, who won the 1995 World Fiddle Championship, performed pre-curtain music, and he also played the bass, banjo and guitar.
Despite its flaws, it's still Oklahoma! The audience loved it. I liked most of it, and it still holds up, more than 50 years later (57 in fact), as a theatrical piece. Besides, it's remarkable that the tiny postage stamp stage of the Lake City Playhouse can support a major musical successfully. We still want to see Curley end up with Laurey; we want the conflict between the ranchers and the farmers to be resolved; and we want to see the Territory of Oklahoma attain statehood.
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