Theater Review: ‘Oklahoma’ is much more than just OK

05/23/2011 7:50 AM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | The North Fork Community Theater will present a production of 'Oklahoma!' beginning this weekend.

Here is a golden opportunity for you to revel in a score of waltzes, ballads, folk and comedy songs while you celebrate both our country’s past and the history of the American musical. Do yourself a favor and see Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” at North Fork Community Theatre.

From the moment a tall cowboy named Curly (James Stevens, blessed with both singing and acting talent) strides down the aisle singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” we know we are in for a treat.

Mr. Stevens and the lovely soprano Jessica Raven as Laurey carry us away in “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” while an admirable Linda Aydinian as Aunt Eller churns and rocks. The gorgeous “People Will Say We’re In Love” and the exuberant “Farmer and the Cowboy” follow. Richard Rodgers’ daughter Mary said her father resumed classical piano lessons when he worked on this show. That may explain the wondrous range of styles, e.g., “Lonely Room” (beautifully and movingly sung at NFCT by Rusty Kransky as Jud).

When the Theater Guild first presented “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs at its playhouse in Connecticut in 1931, neighbor Dick Rodgers was invited to see it. Two years later, he and Oscar Hammerstein began work on the musical version, calling it “Away We Go.”

At the time, “musical comedy” was simply that — a series of popular songs and comic sketches. But Rodgers and Hammerstein changed that forever by integrating story, lyrics and dance, all motivated by the unique feelings of individual characters. They would discuss a scene, who the character was, what the song was about, then write it.

As Steve Sondheim writes in his memoir “Finishing the Hat,” “Oscar transformed a moderately successful play about homosexuality and the loneliness of the early settlers into a paean to American pioneering and expansion.” It opened in 1943, a perfect time to honor our forefathers and mothers who tilled the land and tended cattle since we were all volunteering to help in World War II.

Ironically, the duo found it difficult to raise the backing. Investors complained it had no striptease, no suggestive jokes, no Jewish comic. (It does have a Persian peddler and at the NFCT, David Markel is simply marvelous in the part, trying to sell wares and avoid matrimony.) When Walter Winchell’s agent saw the show’s tryout, she wired back: “No legs, no sex, no chance.”

But they persevered. On the road in Boston, they decided they needed a big uplifting number, preferably about the land. Saturday, after the matinee, the creators went back to their hotel and wrote “Oklahoma.” The director, Reuben Mamoulian, put it in Sunday and Monday nights, and when the chorus rushed down to the footlights and sang, “You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma” right into the laps of the audience, they knew they had a hit and the title was changed.

One of the more thrilling things about musical theater is the sound of a full chorus and the chorus at the NFCT is wonderful — there’s no other word. We happily accept the convention of a crowd singing the same lyrics, presumably having all had exactly the same thought at the same time and Michael Horn, Sherry Beodeker, Ryan Beodeker and all of the farmers and cowboys in the large cast are marvelous.

Amanda Mouzakes as Ado Annie has the skill to make it look easy as she performs a show-stopping “I Cain’t Say No” and later, she duets with the talented and ingratiating Daniel Yaiullo as Will Parker. Celeste Holm, who originated the Ado Annie part, tells the story that on opening night one of the producers came to her dressing room and said, “Remember, it is a tragedy that Ado Annie can’t say no.” Before she could adjust to that, another producer came in and said, “Remember, we are counting on you for comedy!” Sometimes an actor can only listen to his own instinct!

Luckily, at NFCT, the company listened to producer Marion Stark and director Robert Horn. The myriad components of musical production are gathered, unified and presented beautifully by Ms. Stark. Robert Horn’s direction is clear, exuberant, sensitive and altogether right.

Of course, once the curtain is up, it is the pianists who hold the evening together and move it along. Patricia Wall and Kelli Baumann are the real wizards of this magical evening. We lose ourselves in their music and owe them two great “bravos.”

The set is perfect, the costumes grand and the lighting would be even better if the follow-spot lit the faces instead of the laps of the singers.

Equally responsible for the emotional spell of the evening are the choreographers: Erin McKenna and Jan McKenna. Agnes de Mille was the first to introduce “the dream ballet” to musical comedy in order to reveal the hidden fears and desires of the characters. She could only have been grateful and thrilled by the beautiful work of Katie Sousa as well as Peter Peterson and Ryan Beodeker.

“Oklahoma!” is a landmark in the evolution of “the American musical,” which (along with jazz) is our singular and unique contribution to the theater of the world. Rejoice and be proud of it!

‘Oklahoma!’
North Fork Community Theatre
Old Sound Avenue, Mattituck
Performances continue May 19-22 and 26-29. Thursday-Saturday performances start at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees begin at 2:30.
For tickets, visit nfct.com or call 298-NFCT (6328).