Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals thrive on ill-fated lovers. Consider the scenarios of four of their five most canonized works: A local ruffian and an innocent girl at a carnival. A French murderer and a passionate American Nurse. An uptight British tutor and a polygamist far-Asian King. A nun and an Austrian general (I daresay, this is still most people’s favorite despite Carrie Underwood’s acting).
Having seen four of the five musicals generally accepted into the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon*, I was surprised to realize 30 minutes into Act I that Oklahoma! is at heart a musical about stubborn people deciding who will accompany whom to a hoedown. This plot seems trite when compared to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s later subject matter, but this 1943 musical has earned some slack as it nears its 75th birthday.
The Paramount Theater’s production puts the bullet right on target regarding the musical numbers. Free-spirited cowboy Curley (Colte Julian) begins with a diaphragm-testing rendition of “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” and follows with the addictive “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” He is hoping to accompany landowner Laurey (Allison Sill) to the box social. The conflicts finally emerge well into the 90-minute first act when Laurey refuses Curley’s invitation and agrees to instead accompany Jud (Peter Saide), the creepy farm laborer with $39 to his name and pornographic photos taped next to his bed.
Director Jim Corti and choreographer Katie Spelman highlight the dark undertones of the plot in the extended ballet that ends the first act. The dancing begins after Laurey sniffs smelling salts, a set-up that must be a direct inspiration for the drug-induced haze scene from Hair. The ballet-itself, fueled by precise movements from the entire ensemble, moves from innocent to downright trippy. Among the many sequences include a scene where female cast members, stripped to their black (and modest) undergarments, are carried off by their male counterparts, and an inventive segment where the women fight to escape from the inside of Jud’s tightening lasso.
When the singing ends, this production struggles to maintain credibility for its characters. Laurey is not particularly sympathetic when she agrees to Jud’s invitation to the dance (to make Curly jealous) and then immediately states to her neighbor and matriarch Aunt Eller (Caron Buinis) that she is afraid to be alone with Jud. In contrast, Jud establishes himself as the show’s underdog as he belts the deep-baritone “Lonely Room.” Ultimately, this plot only fully works if the concept of “leading a poor guy on” did not exist in US territories in the early 1900’s.
Plot issues aside, the second act is a fast 45 minutes bookended by the two most fun numbers: the addictive bluegrass tune “The Farmer and the Cowman [Should be Friends]” and the energized “Oklahoma.” Rich and Oscar knew how to end on a high note. Oklahoma! may not have the depth of the other Rodgers and Hammerstein favorites, but the singing and dancing along with its placement in early musical theater history have ensured that Oklahoma! will remain a theater-going standard. Credit the Paramount Theater with bringing two outstanding revivals (including February’s production of The Who’s Tommy) to the Chicago suburbs in 2015.
*NOTE: While State Fair is far from a classic, Norm (my father) and I were pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed that show of miscellaneous Rodgers and Hammerstein songs glued together with a plot about ill-fated lovers at the State Fair. With an opening number dominated by the lyrics, “Our state fair is the best state fair in the state,” the musical is a tribute to the joy of overcoming low expectations.