note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Susan Daniels
(This review originally appeared in the South End News.)
As any theater buff knows, “Oklahoma!” inaugurated a new era in the American musical. By integrating the narrative with Rodgers & Hammerstein’s memorable songs and Agnes de Mille’s Western flavored ballet, a new musical theater genre was born. Song and dance, the soul of the production, not only supported the plot and character, but helped to move both forward as a cohesive unit. In short, everything hung together.
In the 61 years since its premiere, “Oklahoma!” consistently has been a popular and critical success, setting a 15 year record as the longest-running Broadway musical as well as earning plaudits around the globe. The newly conceived national tour, adapted from the 1998 Trevor Nunn/Susan Stroman revival and currently running at the Colonial Theatre through Saturday, may not have the excitement of the 1943 original nor the sparkle of the most recent British/Broadway productions, but it is a solid evening of entertainment, packed with the most glorious songs - “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin,” “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” the title song -- this side of the Great Divide.
Set in the territory of Oklahoma at the turn of the century, against a background rivalry between cattlemen and farmers, it is the story of cowboy Curly and farm girl Laurey, who have mutual, but unacknowledged, attractions for one another. Heightening the dramatic arc are the menacing actions of Jud, the brooding farmhand, who also has feelings for Laurey.
Since the story takes place during a time of great national optimism, the characters embody the “salt of the earth” quality inherent in the title song’s famous lyrics -- “We know we belong to the land/and the land we belong to is grand.”
Engaging and enthusiastic, Brandon Andrus’ portrayal of Curly embodies the lyric’s sentiments by turning in a performance with high marks all around. As his love interest, Amanda Rose’s Laurey is bit two dimensional, but her singing and dancing are easy on the ears and eyes, as are all the production numbers, whether performed solo or by the talented, non-equity cast.
As musicals from that time period were prone to do, everything ends happily, despite poor Jud’s demise. In a groundbreaking move, the dramatic tensions are resolved with a dance number during the first act -- a 12-minute ballet in the corn fields incorporating classical and contemporary steps with folk gestures; and a fight scene between the two male leads, choreographed with visually arresting movement. Both musical numbers present opportunities for character development, offering shadings of the inner turmoil experienced by the leads. If it weren’t for all the important history attached to “Oklahoma!,” this production would be considered a knock-out. Even so, it is a piece of Americana that puts a smile on your face from the opening chords in the overture to the closing song almost three hours later. And in my book, that’s OK!
(THIS WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE SOUTH END NEWS.)