Love in bloomers: High-stepping harmonizing honeys take charge in Hangar Theatre’s Oklahoma!
Oklahoma! is one of three landmark
musicals that reshaped the form, the other two being Show Boat and A
Chorus Line. It was not only the integration of music into the story
line, so that song lyrics extend the spoken dialogue, but even more the
innovation and integration of the dances. Choreographer Agnes de Mille
brought the iconoclasm of modern dance into mainstream popular culture,
and we’ve never been the same. Nevertheless, the surprise and charm of
seeing a chorus of cowboys parodying the steps of square and line
dancing has not faded after 65 years.
Casting is central in Knechtges’s
vision. His leads not only sing and tell funny stories, but they must
be equally adept as dancers. There are no substitute hoofers for the
climactic Dream Ballet before the first act’s curtain: Piper Goodeve as
Laurey, Whit Baldwin as Curly and even Mark Leydorf‘s Jud all appear as
Goodeve, blessed with a soaring, almost
Viennese, soprano, can complete for the versatility prize. Last summer
she was Sheila in Hangar’s production of Galt MacDermott’s Hair,
another role calling for singing and a different kind of dancing, for
which she was nominated for a Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live
Theater Award. Despite a dark-eyed persona that suggests the urban East
Coast, Goodeve delivers a Laurey with grit, a frontier tomboy who takes
no guff from the boys. Yet her “Many a Fine Day” reveals a delicate
refinement on the plains.
Baldwin’s voice trends a bit higher on
the register than other Curlys, and so brightens the heart-swelling
lyricism of the famous opening number, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.”
When he removes his shirt for the combat with Jud, we see the buffed-up
torso of a welterweight boxer. Unshaven but an inch under the tallest
males of the troupe, Baldwin has the manly presence of a
better-mannered Colin Farrell. For all the singing and dancing, his
biggest moment is dramatic, when he must convincingly sacrifice all he
owns, ostensibly to buy Laurey’s picnic basket at an auction, but even
more for the good of the community.
It’s probably more than a coincidence
that Joanna Krupnick as Ado Annie is a brunette with flashing eyes
about the same size as Goodeve’s Laurey. When Alfred Hitchcock arranged
such casting in his movies it was called “doubling,” encouraging us to
see one character as a commentary or parody of another. If that’s so,
then Krupnick’s Annie is the profane love that redefines the sacred
love of the leads. Krupnick’s Ado Annie sings “I Cain’t Say No” in a
Betty Boop voice and puts her entire persona into the service of
comedy. If this Oklahoma! were shown to an audience of deaf-mutes
Krupnick could get laughs from her mobile facial muscles. Lily Tomlin
will eat her heart out when she learns of this.
Two comic players perform opposite
Annie, of which one, Will Parker (Joseph Breen), is a dancer-singer who
gets the girl. While some of his songs are among the best-remembered in
the show, “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” and “All Er
Nothin’,” the character’s shorted on gag lines. Breen makes up for that
as the highest-stepping of all the male dancers and plenty of sass, as
in his choreographed “Oklahoma hello.”
Stealing much comic thunder is Sorab
Wadia as Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler trying to escape shotgun
nuptials with Annie. Indian-born Wadia, who starred in Jihad: The
Musical at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year, has made a
specialty of comic Middle Eastern types, including Ali Hakim. It’s a
role that cannot be overplayed, no gesture is ever too broad, and
double takes can be stretched through two-three-four beats. It works.
Anyone in the audience old enough to remember gasoline for less than 50
cents a gallon already knows all of Ali’s lines, but Wadia puts the
bang back into them.
More thankless but equally affecting is
Mark Leydorf’s troubled Jud Fry, whose death Curly conjures up in song.
As Oklahoma! is perhaps the ultimate musical comedy and a family show,
it’s been common in recent productions to soften his bite. Leydorf’s
ability to make him a threat adds to the necessary dramatic tension and
makes clear that he’s the Id dancing in Laurey’s Freudian dream.
With the exception of Jud’s nightmarish
“Lonely Room,” every song in Oklahoma! has had a life off the boards.
Some of these, like the dance number “The Farmer and the Cowman,”
really only make sense in the theater. John Bell’s musical direction,
with only three unseen players, fills the hall with thunder. The title
song heard at the finale, a kind of substitute national anthem written
about struggling poor whites during World War II, 10 years after the
Dust Bowl, has all the thrill of an American Marseillaise. Every
American child should see this show at least once.
This production runs through July 26. See Times Table for information.