American musical theater changed for good on March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theatre in New York City when Oklahoma! opened on Broadway, and those who’d like to know (or who would simply like a reminder of) just how revolutionary Oklahoma! was way back then need only head up to Solvang for PCPA’s 71st Anniversary revival of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic—not a perfect production but one which, as directed and choreographed by Michael Jenkinson, makes it clear what a groundbreaker this seven-decade-old remains to this day.
Recall that when Oklahoma! made its Broadway debut mid-WW2, a “musical comedy” still meant chorus girls, jokes, and a bright and bouncy opening production number.
Not so this first Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein collaboration, whose musical theater revolution begins with the final notes of its “Overture,” the stage occupied not by a bevy of spangled chorines and tuxedoed chorus boys but by a lone middle-aged woman churning butter in front of a country farmhouse. From offstage comes a male voice singing a capella, “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow…” The voice grows louder until the man enters, wearing a cowboy hat and chaps.
Meet our hero Curly, no showbiz hoofer like Anything Goes’ Billy Crocker but an honest-to-goodness cowpoke who probably never did a ball-step-change in his life nor has any idea what a kick you might get from champagne.
What a shock Broadway audiences must have registered at Oklahoma!’s opening moments, for never before had a musical got started so quietly. And though it was true that a handful of musicals had told serious stories before and integrated songs into their storytelling (most notably 1927’s Show Boat), Oklahoma! was, and is to this day, the first truly modern Broadway musical, without which there might have been no Guys And Dolls, or My Fair Lady, or West Side Story. Songs take the place of dialog, thereby not only advancing plot but providing audiences with one Hit Parade favorite after another, a model which continues in the 21st Century albeit minus those chart-topping hits.
The majority of Oklahoma!’s story unfolds over the course of a single “beautiful day,” the day of the box social dance. As Curly (George Wallace) and Laurey (Jackie Vanderbeck) exchange barbed words, their flirtatious undertone makes it clear that these two independent souls are made for each other. Curly describes the “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” which he’ll be driving when he comes to pick Laurey up for the dance, then quickly bursts her bubble by telling her that it was all a fabrication. Later, Laurey informs her assembled girlfriends that “Many A New Day” will dawn before she ever loses sleep over a man (but of course we know that she’s only fooling herself). The flirting continues as Curly and Laurey duet “People Will Say We’re In Love,” since like Carousel’s Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow two years later, this Rodgers & Hammerstein couple only allow themselves to sing around and not about the love they so obviously feel for each other.
Though not a “musical comedy” in the pre-1943 sense, Oklahoma! does have its share of comic relief in scenes revolving around the inability of budding teen vixen Ado Annie (Karin Hendricks) to say “No” to either her beau Will Parker (Jake Delaney) or the Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Jenkinson) traveling from town to town selling his exotic wares.
Later, the introduction of the dark and dangerous Jud Fry (Galloway Stevens), who has his own twisted designs on Laurey, makes it perfectly clear that Oklahoma! has more to offer than light-hearted frothy fun.
In fact, it’s this perfect blend of the comedic and the dramatic that keeps Oklahoma! as fresh as if it had been written only yesterday, especially when helmed by a director like Jenkinson who truly understands the power and relevance of Hammerstein’s timeless book, based on Lynn Riggs’ play Green Grow The Lilacs, as complemented by Rodgers’ unforgettable melodies and Hammerstein’s plot-propelling lyrics.
In this reviewer’s experience, Oklahoma! works best with leads whose age and looks reflect the life experience of its late-teens/early-20s midwest protagonists, and in this respect, PCPA’s Oklahoma! is less successful than some others I’ve seen before.
As the gosh-darn adorable Will Parker, Delaney comes closest to fitting his character’s vitals. Not only does he look and sound like the (good ol’) boy-next-door, but the charming 2008 Hartt School Musical Theater grad proves himself a quintessential musical theater song-and-dance man, a bona fide find whose PCPA debut will hopefully be but the first of many SoCal appearances.
PCPA treasure Hendricks has delightful fun with Ado Annie’s inability to “say ‘No,’” Stevens captures Jud’s darker sides and sings in a gorgeous bass (though the character appears a bit too cleaned up at the box social to be as scary as he ought to), and Jenkinson makes for a hilarious fish-out-of water as Ali Hakim.
As for Curly, a character that proved a perfect fit for Patrick Wilson in the 2002 Broadway revival, Wallace plays the all-American cowboy with such infectious cockiness and joie-de-vivre (or whatever they call joie-de-vivre out in Oklahoma) that you can almost overlook the miscasting.
Fortunately, leading lady Vanderbeck, the incandescent Scenie-winning Marion The Librarian of PCPA’s The Music Man, is everything an Oklahoma! fan could wish for in a Laurey Williams, a role that could easily be played (like Marion) as your average, everyday (i.e. ho-hum) ingénue, but in Vanderbeck’s hands reveals layer upon layer of hopes, dreams, frustrations, and repressed desires. It’s been five years since Vanderbeck has graced out Southland stages and her Laurey makes it abundantly clear how much she has been missed.
PCPA character actress extraordinaire Kitty Balay could not make for a warmer, wiser or more winning Aunt Eller, Andrea Hilbrant gives Gertie Cummings a hilarious laugh from hell (which is precisely what the part calls for), and Billy Breed (Ike Skidmore), John Pillow (Andrew Carnes), and Casey Kooyman (Cord Elam) are all terrific as well.
As choreographer, Jenkinson puts his own signature stamp on Oklahoma!’s multiple production numbers, with the rousing “Kansas City” (a Delaney showcase), the charming “Many A New Day,” and the rip-roaring “The Farmer and the Cowman” allowing ensemble members Lucas Blair, Breed, Casey Canino, Matthew Carrillo, Deborah Fauerbach, Anne Guynn, Hilbrant, Jacqueline Hildebrand, William Hoshida, Zach Johnson, Kooyman, Catie Marron, Alysa Perry, George P. Scott, Alex Stewart, Katie Wackowski, and Sierra Wells to strut their triple-threat stuff.
The groundbreaking and now iconic Act One-closing “Dream Ballet” showcases Jenkinson’s imagination and flair along with the dance gifts of the abovementioned ensemble, in particular those of Stewart and Wackowski as Dream Curly and Dream Laurey, though this reviewer does prefer when Curly and Laurey to do their own dream dancing as they did in the most recent Broadway revival. (It just makes better sense, since everyone else in Laurey’s dream is “the real thing.”)
Though a live orchestra is somewhat missed, with musical director Callum Morris conducting the prerecorded one assembled for this production and with sound designer Elisabeth Rebel mixing vocals and tracks, this Oklahoma! sounds A-OK.
PCPA’s Oklahoma! looks terrific too, from scenic designer DeAnne Kennedy’s mobile, multi-locale set, which captures the look and feel of the Oklahoma plains as seen through an artist’s eye, to Frederick P. Deeben’s pitch-perfect period costumes, and Mark Booher merits kudos for his fight choreography. Suzanne Tyler is production stage manager.
Though a contemporary theatergoer might possibly dismiss Oklahoma! as a relic of the distant past (not all that much “happens” after all), it would be a mistake not to appreciate the beauty of its simplicity and the genius of this honest-to-goodness classic. Think of Oklahoma! the next time you see any of your favorite new Broadway hits and you’ll see how this show grandparented them all.
And if you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Solvang this month, make plans now to enjoy an afternoon in the quaint Danish-American village and an evening on the Oklahoma! plains.
Solvang Festival Theater, 420 2nd Street, Solvang.
August 5, 2014
Photos: Luis Escobar Reflections Photography Studio