Saturday, February 23, 2013

OKLAHOMA! Sounds Great at ISU's Center for the Performing Arts

After seeing Rodgers' and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, it's tempting to spell it Ooooooooooklahoma. And now that's stuck in your head, isn't it?

That's the thing with Rodgers' and Hammerstein's first collaboration as composer and lyricist. The songs are incredibly catchy. Whether it's "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," the one about the girl who "Cain't Say No," or the title song that celebrates OK becoming a state, they all stick with you. They're hummable, mummable melodies with bright, snappy little lyrics you can't forget even if you want to. Hammerstein's lyrics push the story forward, while Rodgers' music pushes Hammersein's book and characters along, with "Beautiful Morning" soaring to the skies, "Surrey" clip-clopping like a horse, and "Oklahoma!" running away like, oh, wind sweepin' down the plain. The score defines the world of Oklahoma! It may not be anything like the real Oklahoma in 1906, but it certainly works for this fictional state of mind.

Oklahoma! was a huge hit when it opened on Broadway in 1943 -- it played for over five years and some 2212 performances -- with Agnes De Mille's square-dance-meets-ballet choreography a major piece of its success. If Oklahoma! marked the first time Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the libretto for Richard Rodgers' music, it was also Agnes De Mille's first time choreographing a book musical on Broadway.

The story goes that De Mille insisted on "real" dancers -- from dance companies -- for her inaugural Oklahoma! instead of the usual Broadway chorus boys and girls. For Illinois State University's production, director Richard Corley and choreographer Greg Merriman use their ensemble of singers and actors along with just a few dancers, which means the choreography strays considerably from Agnes De Mille territory. Still, this production's Dream Laurey, Caroline Pilcher, is lovely.

But it's clear that the voices are the strength of this Oklahoma! The players in the main romantic triangle -- Rob Holden as Curly, Ross Kugman as bad guy Jud, and Christie Duffer as Laurey, the girl they both want -- all sing beautifully. Holden sounds terrific on "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and "Oklahoma!" and he and Duffer combine perfectly when they sing out the love song "People Will Say."

Kugman not only has the deep, dark tones to make Jud's songs work, but he's a good actor, too. His Jud is more weasel than thug, which may seem different for Oklahoma! purists, but it certainly works within the confines of the ISU production.

John Ramseyer and Lauren Pfieffer also sound great as the secondary couple, aw-shucks cowboy Will Parker and his flirtatious girlfriend Ado Annie, and Nico Tangorra takes the acting honors on the night with his version of peddler Ali Hakim, another of Ado Annie's admirers. Although the original Ali Hakim, a veteran of Yiddish theater named Joseph Buloff, looked a bit like Chico Marx in the role, Tangorra has Groucho's cigar mixed with Charlie Chaplin's bowler hat. Oddly enough, that turns him into a mini Ernie Kovacs, which is a very interesting take on Ali Hakim. Kovackian or not, Tangorra navigates the comedy, as well as Hakim's trunk full of trinkets, like a champ.

Scenic designer Thad Hallstein provides a handsome barn to frame the action, with lots of worn wood and a few hanging quilts -- and real-live, on-stage surrey! -- while costume designer Amy Cain adds an impressive array of boots, hats and dresses in subdued tones from maroon to pale yellow, with a pop of color in a bright orange jacket for Ado Annie. 

ISU's Center for the Performing Arts was packed on opening night, so you would be well advised to get your tickets now. Performances of Oklahoma! continue through February 27.

Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics and book by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs
Original dances by Agnes De Mille

The School of Theatre and Dance at Illinois State University
Center for the Performing Arts

Director: Richard Corley
Music Director/Conductor: Glenn Bock
Scenic Designer: Thad Hallstein
Costume Designer: Amy Cain
ighting Designer: Mark Maruschak
Sound Designer: Shannon O'Neill
Hair and Makeup Designer: Shelby Brand
Choreographer: Greg Merriman
Fight Director: Paul Dennhardt
Chorus Master: Dennis Gotkowski
Vocal Coach: Justin Vickers
Stage Manager: Thomas P. Moster

Cast: Rob Holden, Christie Duffer, Lauren Sheffey, John Ramseyer, Lauren Pfeiffer, Nico Tangorra, Ross Kugman, Haley Camire, Thomas Bailey, Scott Guererro, Mitchell Schaeflein, Gabriela Rivera, Monica Hamilton, Theresa Moen, Christina Duris, Eric Trumpet, Kelsey Bunner, Kyle Ayers, Nick Spindler, Nick Lindmark, Josh Gouskos, Jeff Wright, Kevin Alleman, Samantha Barnewolt, Caroline Pilcher, Tess Losada, Emily Kuether, Brooke Kirschsieper.

Remaining Performances: February 23 and 27 and March 2 at 7:30 pm; February 24 at 2 pm

Running time: 3:05, including one 15-minute intermission

For ticket information, click here.


For my own amusement, I have added a picture of the Oklahoma! trifecta I reviewed in the early 90s. I think there was actually one more, but I don't have a program for that one. Oklahoma! remains the one show I asked my editor not to assign me because of the four I saw and reviewed in such quick succession.

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