High as an Elephant's Eye

by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & was humming the melodies three days before I saw the show. The Civic's production of Oklahoma! (through Oct. 26) hadn't even premiered, and yet the coffee at breakfast already had me singing "Oh, what a beautiful mornin'." The tunes of Richard Rodgers and the words of Oscar Hammerstein can have that kind of effect on musical theater freaks. (And sometimes, even on abnormal people.)

Director Kathie Doyle-Lipe's production doesn't deliver any new insights, but it has enough energy and prettiness to maintain the show's longstanding theatrical tradition -- visually, vocally and emotionally.

For a scenic equivalent to Ronald Reagan's 40-years-later "morning in America," you can't beat the opening tableau: Aunt Eller (Jean Hardie) taking the time to savor her morning chores, accompanied by set and lighting designer Peter Hardie's clever simulation of sunrise, with that little orb twinkling on the horizon at first and then gaining in height and brilliance.

Then, of course, comes Curly's famous offstage voice, filled with optimism. Adam Peterson exemplifies "all-American" in the role: barrel-chested and assertive, friendly and full of imagination. He's not the most demonstrative cowhand you've ever seen -- his acting out of the fantasy's details in "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" seemed restrained -- but Peterson has endearing mannerisms and a yearning voice.

As Laurey, Alyssa Day is especially good at conveying love-longing and disappointment in romance. The show's simplistic psychology has couples setting obvious traps of jealousy for one another, but at least Day can flit from dependence to defiance in a twinkling.

The ensemble's acting is effective, with Jean Hardie bellowing her false outrage over pictures of a "hussy!" and running the second-act auction like a queen bee. Thomas Heppler's Persian peddler does delightful slow burns and comic double-takes. Emily Cleveland doesn't overplay Ado Annie, turning her into a caricature of horniness; instead, Cleveland shows us Annie's life-force and simple curiosity. Shawn Hudson may not present the creepiest or darkest Jud you've ever seen, but his powerful singing in the show's least memorable song, "Lonely Room" -- along with his athletic ability -- present a complete characterization. As Will Parker, Cameron Lewis pulls off tap routines even while wearing cowboy boots; his courtship of Annie veers toward the cartoonish, but his dancing skills energize the show. And Peter Hardie appears in front of his own set with a raspy-voiced Andrew Carnes, who regards his daughter Annie as a possession no goll-durned suitor is gonna trifle with.

Doyle-Lipe obtains high-voltage energy from the company in the big crowd scenes and adds some nice comic flourishes, like the gang of cowpokes lowering themselves in unison just to catch a glimpse of a naughty French postcard. But her real strength -- choreography -- comes to the fore in Laurey's nightmare dream sequence, with its lurid lighting caressing the oddly angled limbs of the saloon girls as cowboys sit astride chairs and leer. All the asymmetrical movements reinforce Laurey's imbalance: The wrong, brutal guy shows up at the altar with her, and the victims of all this psychic carnage are dragged off on chairs like wounded soldiers in a battle.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & here's some danger of museum theater here, of course. The Civic trumpets the fact that it hasn't produced Oklahoma! in 20 years, as if the Civic were the only place in the world to see this show. But if carrying on the tradition is all they're doing, it's still a task worth tackling.

And less straightforward: Back in 1943, when they saw Oklahoma! just before they shipped out to fight a war that most Americans supported, many of the servicemen were seen weeping. Pride in one's country was easier to come by back when patriotism was less complicated. And 65 years later, we're more sophisticated about sexual politics: Trying to make your beau jealous by going off to the local box social with another man seems as transparent now as a little child's fib. Oklahoma! is an innocent musical now playing perpetually in a country that's a lot less innocent.

But the melodies of Rodgers are sweet, and the lyrics of Hammerstein still spring surprises. Doyle-Lipe's production at the Civic is a tuneful and pleasant reminder of what we wish America could be.

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