More than OK: John Garry (center) in the “Kansas City” number from SU Drama’s Oklahoma!. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
The first step is small but telling. The Storch Theater (formerly Experimental) was obstinately designed without a pit for musicians in a program where musical theater is a major enterprise. Well, something like a pit has been found: the space between the first row and the stage where music director Nathan Hurwitz and eight other players sit in single file, their heads lined up in silhouette during the action. This gives us a full-bodied presentation of Rodgers’ ever-lush score, like “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” and also frees up stage space for the large cast of dancers.
For much of the action and dancing, the stage remains bare, with suggestions of Aunt Eller’s porch or Jud Fry’s den rolled in as needed. Lowenstein and Wanstreet employ scenic designer M.O. Geiger to support their priorities. Whatever else is happening on stage, the love story or the fable of self-sacrifice (Curly sells his means of livelihood to win Laurey and support the school), Oklahoma! is actually a musical about dance. It is in the first act’s “Dream Ballet” that we learn about Laurey’s unconscious mind, with the super-ego (Curly) and id (Jud) portrayed in old-fashioned Freudian clarity.
The program still credits Agnes de Mille for choreographing the original production, and some of the steps seen here have appeared in previous regional mountings. Yet Lowenstein and Wanstreet have clearly added some seasoning—maybe saffron and coriander—to the brew. Here and there appear new flourishes and gestures, extensions of the de Mille idiom that sharpen characterization and speed action. Lowenstein choreographs the witty, folky “All Er Nuthin’” number in the second act, and Wanstreet essays all the others, taking full advantage of youthful athletic gams and the enlarged space. Nowhere do his efforts pay more dividends than in the heart-thumping title song, “Oklahoma!,” a kind of disguised national anthem for wartime with the emotional punch of an American La Marseillaise.
Quite apart from renewing a historical text, the benefit of a college production of Oklahoma! (first produced when labor costs were low) is that it allows so many students to get into the act. The high admission standards of the program has brought us the glorious soprano of Emma Ritchie as Laurey, adding luster to usually neglected numbers like “Many a New Day,” a survival from operetta. Ritchie’s presence is strangely undercut by Doreen Sayegh’s costuming, which somehow makes her look dowdier than the other town girls. Seth Danner is a double-threat performer, warm and humorous with his mornin’s and surreys, but also so surefooted and lithe as to take on the role of Dream Curly in Laurey’s “Dream Ballet.”
Once again, SU Drama is awash with excess female talent, so much so that we find leading lady beauties in character roles. Take, for instance, Gertie Cummings, she of the cackling laugh who finally lassoes peddler Ali Hakim. Maggie McVey in that role is gorgeous even as her voice peels the wallpaper. Ali’s earlier flirtation, Ado Annie, is one of the greatest soubrette roles of the American, but Mary Kate Morrissey inserts a vixenish charm into her raucous “I Cain’t Say No.” The role of Aunt Eller, ostensibly the oldest character in the cast, is often unrewarding in college productions, but tall Sarah Olbrantz gives her a spunky authority and banishes implications of her youth.
Will Parker, ostensibly a comic second lead, is arguably the most demanding of the show, calling for dancing, singing and snappy comic delivery. John Garry as Will makes a strong entrance with “Kansas City” (where everything’s up to date), wringing laughs from lines that are only slightly less familiar than “To be or not to be” or “Bah, humbug.”
Reinvented is Jacob Heimer’s peddler Ali Hakim, a character deriving from vaudeville and burlesque, who talks like one of the Marx Brothers. Repressing the leering given the character in other productions, Heimer gets more with less, underplaying reactions and waiting out the two-beat pause.
Departure from type marks Brendan M. Cullen’s dour misfit, Jud Fry. Last seen as the hyper-articulate Mirabel in last season’s Way of the World, the Restoration comic masterpiece, Cullen’s Fry creates tension through grunts and snarls, and a body set shouting anger and aggression.
Created in the midst of World War II, a continuing unspoken presence, Oklahoma! is now 66 years old, the same age as Robert De Niro and Keith Richards. No contest about which of the three has held up the best. As the Hammerstein lyrics put it, “You’re lookin’ fine, Oklahoma, Oklahoma! OK!” This production runs through Oct. 24.
This production runs through Oct. 24.