Goodspeed's "Oklahoma!": Fresh off the Cob

Rhett Guter (as Curly) & The Cast of "Oklahoma!"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Oh, what a beautiful musical. When the ground-breaking show Oklahoma! burst onto the theatrical scene back in 1943, it easily earned its exclamation point. This was largeIy due to its evolving status as what would come to be called the “book musical” (with a nod to “Showboat”) as well as its amazing novel integration of song and dance numbers into the plot. Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, it would run for 2212 performances on Broadway. Revolutionary as it was in form, the plot reflected the undeniable fact that it was a far simpler time, when the crux of a libretto could be the question of whose homemade apple jelly and gooseberry tarts for the Box Social got auctioned by whom, and so went the story in the 1955 film version. More recent theatrical productions have re-emphasized its darker elements, notably the role of Jud Fry, and restored his song Lonely Room, right after the lighter comic Poor Jud number. It was the product of its times in other respects, such as its tinges of female inferiority and even some racial undertones (the portrayal of the peddler Ali Hakim, and a reference to the ragtime dance seen being performed by “some colored fellers”, cut in this verson). Yet despite these historical negative notes, it endures, primarily due to its lovely score and unabashedly optimistic central tale. It comes as a surprise that the show has never before been produced at Goodspeed Musicals, an oversight that is currently being corrected by a superb cast and crew. It's corn, but superbly fresh off the cob.

The Cast of "Oklahoma!"
(photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Directed by Jenn Thompson, with Choreography by Katie Spelman (based on the original Agnes de Mille routines), this one is a winner. It remains the story of handsome cowhand Curly (Rhett Guter) and local lovely Laurey (Samantha Bruce), supported by her Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell), and the subplot involving farm hand Will Parker (Jake Swain) and his main squeeze, Ado Annie (Gizel Jimenez), with some humor interjected by Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano) and menace by Jud Fry (Matt Faucher) as well as complications with Ado Annie's “Paw” Andrew Carnes (C. Mingo Long). All are wonderful, with standouts Guter, Bruce and especially Faucher. The creative elements are all up to Goodspeed's renowned level of professionalism, from the Scenic Design by Wilson Chin, to the Costume Design by Tracey Christensen, the Lighting Design by Philip S. Rosenberg, the Sound Design by Jay Hilton, the Orchestration by Dan DeLange and Music Direction by Michael O'Flaherty.

From the moment the first strains of Curly's Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' are heard from offstage, the score continues to enchant, with such songs as People Will Say We're in Love, Out of My Dreams, Many a New Day, and the title number, exclamation point and all. Then there are the less elegiac but humorous The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, Kansas City, I Cain't Say No, The Farmer and the Cowman, and All er Nuthin', which add up to a baker's dozen of memorable hits. It's easy to see why it hasn't lost its popularity even though its plot points are less pointed than they once seemed.
Yet it speaks to the universality and endurance of the perpetually popular and prevailing cowboy-meets-farmgirl theme that this show still captures our hearts and moves our souls. Perhaps it's a testimony that, no matter how profane our politics might become, there remain some very basic and fundamental truths and aspirations that most of us continue to embrace against all odds. In the mythical world of Curly and Laurey, which one should be urged to revisit, though the corn is still as high as an elephant's eye, it's cobbled together into a true testament to how happy endings are still possible, fences are for mending and not dividing us, and the world can be less of a cynical swamp and more of a bright golden haze on a meadow.



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