Timeless treat

It's hard not to enjoy a rousing production of Oklahoma!, for more reasons than any musical needs in order to get audiences smiling and humming afterward. URI Theatre is pleasing those familiar with the classic and winning new fans with a production (through November 23) that just can't stop moving.
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  November 19, 2008

OKinside.jpg
FARM GIRL AND COWBOY Maynard and Hawver.

It's hard not to enjoy a rousing production of Oklahoma!, for more reasons than any musical needs in order to get audiences smiling and humming afterward. URI Theatre is pleasing those familiar with the classic and winning new fans with a production (through November 23) that just can't stop moving.

Directed by Paula McGlasson, its musical direction is by Lila Kane and choreography by Angelica Vessella.

Taking its cue from the production of Show Boat 15 years earlier, 1943's Oklahoma! taught subsequent musicals how to do their job. Oscar Hammerstein didn't just fit his lyrics to Richard Rodgers's music, he used the songs to integrate with and advance the plot. We take that for granted now in musicals — that the songs won't merely decorate the story.

Coming to Broadway in the midst of World War II, Oklahoma! was designed not only to make audiences feel good, but to feel proud about their country. Commendably, this isn't done with flag-waving but by harkening back to Oklahoma before it was a state. (It's a musical reprise of the 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs, adhering closely to the turn-of-the-century characters and plot, but smoothing out Lynn Riggs's clunky, western-hillbilly dialogue.)

The feel-good part centers around a traditional love story, but with a difference. Plucky young cowboy Curly (Nile Hawver) hankers after sweet young farm girl Laurey (Lara Maynard), as she does in return. But these are independent sorts out there on the prairie, so both of them have too much pride to admit as much to the other. Their coy duet, "People Will Say We're in Love," continues in that tone.

The other romance is a comical triangle unmatched in musical theater. Ado Annie (Stephanie Morgan) is a lusty, giggling teenager whose hormones turn her head toward whichever boy is sweet-talking her at the moment, as she admits in "I Cain't Say No!" Her main boyfriend is Will Parker (Naysh Fox), a gangly, goodhearted simpleton. Her father promised that if Will ever managed to scrape together $50, they could get married. But that's too much detail for poor Will, who wins that much in a rodeo but spends it all on presents for Annie.

Her other admirer, of a sort, is Ali Hakim, a plaid-suited peddler from Persia, delightfully portrayed by Cory Crew with gulps and fidgets and a healthy aversion to shotgun-wielding fathers. Other men join him in singing "It's a Scandal! It's a Outrage!," which didn't make it into the movie version, though it should have. ("A rooster in a chicken coop is better off than men/He ain't the special property of just one hen!")

An equally memorable character is Jud Fry (Ben Gracia), the quietly scary, swarthy hired hand on Laurey's farm. He's hankering after her and thinks he has a chance when, to annoy Curly, she impetuously agrees to go with Jud to a box lunch social. Again the stage version fills out the character, giving him the song "Lonely Room." Gracia is a well-cast addition, effectively physicalizing Jud's feeling so awkward in the world, whether shambling about or just standing there. Curly sings "Pore Jud Is Dead" to him in his depressing smokehouse quarters (suggesting that suicide might bring him sympathy). When Jud joins in, we want to whap Curly upside the head.

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