Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2002
A young woman is living alone with her aunt on a farm in the Oklahoma territory just before it achieved statehood in 1907. She is being sexually harassed and threatened by their farm hand, and the guilt and shame she feels because of this is disturbing her sleep and her ability to receive the attentions of a decent young man who she loves. She tells her aunt about her fears, but is reminded that the hired man is a hard worker and that without him two lone women would be unable to sustain a farm.
The more we see of the farm hand, the more we realize that he is a deeply troubled man and that the young woman is right to fear him. Her suitor gets wind of the trouble, and tells the hired man to stay away from his beloved, but this only results in an escalating rivalry between the two men. At a town social event the hired man tries to force his attentions on the young woman and she flees to her suitor for assistance. Finally able to confess their love, the young couple becomes engaged and marries, but on their wedding night the hired man comes to kill the groom. In the ensuing struggle the farm hand falls on his own knife and dies, but the groom still faces murder charges under the local law.
And that is the central plot of Oklahoma!
But wait, you cry, Oklahoma! is a sappy-happy show full of wonderful Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes and funny characters like Ado Annie and Ali Hakim the Peddler. Well, you are right. And so am I. One of my great complaints about Oklahoma! is that there is this deadly serious plot going on and this poor girl Laurey keeps trying to tell people that she is afraid of Jud Fry and all anyone does is sing and dance. This is the dilemma that faces any director and company staging this icon of the American musical theatre, are you going to emphasize the drama or the comedy?
The Mac-Haydn has wisely decided to play up the comedy to the extent that I left the theatre convinced that I had seen a show about that funny Ado Annie and her two suitors. This is not to say that Tiffany Thornton, B.J. High, and the powerful Jim Kidd don’t do right by Laurey, Curly, Jud, and their very serious storyline, but director David Liedholt and his design team Cathleen Crocker-Perry (costumes) and Andrew Gmoser (lights) have thrown all the color, light, and energy into the comic subplot. And Megan Midkiff as Ado Annie, Jamie Grayson as Will Parker, and John Baker as Ali Hakim give it their all. Midkiff particularly steals the stage from every other performer with a vibrant and almost uncontrollable sense of sexual energy and joie de vivre. Her Annie is a girl who can’t say no to herself or to life, let alone to the opposite sex.
I really enjoyed the performance of B.J. High as Curly. He went beyond the bland and handsome leading man stereotype and gave us a sense of the impatience and frustration of young love thwarted. He also sings very nicely, and Curly has some wonderful songs to sing. Thornton is just a tad too old to play Laurey, especially since High creates such a very young and eager Curly. What Thornton does play well is Laurey’s head-strong independence and sense of humor, and, of course, she is always a pleasure to hear sing.
Hammerstein and Lynn Riggs, who wrote the play Green Grow The Lilacs upon which Oklahoma! is based, were way ahead of their time in understanding and presenting what drives a man to commit compulsive sexual crimes. Jud Fry is depicted as an isolated loner who feeds on pent up anger, desire, and pornography. Kidd enables us to see the human side of Jud, while also presenting a very real menace to Laurey, Curly, and the whole community.
Marcia Kunkel is solid as always as Aunt Eller, and Baker is delightful as Ali Hakim. He managed to avoid a lot of the unpleasant ethnic stereotyping often associated with the role and just make the peddler a guy trying to make a buck while avoiding (unsuccessfully) a shotgun wedding. At first I was ready to strangle Aileen Goldberg for the insistent hyena’s laugh with which she endowed her Gertie Cummings, but in her final scene I was glad she had driven me to distraction earlier.
There was some real-life drama on opening night when, during an exit from the next to last scene, High managed to severely sprain his ankle. He had to be helped on to the stage for the final scene and did not make it out for the curtain call. The Chatham Rescue Squad arrived and took High to the hospital for x-rays and treatment, and he was back on stage the following night. Some slight alterations have been made to the blocking and choreography and a line or two added to explain why Curly is limping, but the show is going on in the grand tradition.
Oklahoma! runs through September 1 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and 50 minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002