ACT proves 'Oklahoma!' still has lots of life
By Joseph T. Rosmiarek
Advertiser Drama Critic
The Army Community Theatre production directed by Glenn Cannon doesn't shy away from the show's tall corn, and succeeds all the better for it. All the characters proudly wear their emotions on their sleeves, and even the villain and the con-man admit to their motives. This is not a contemporary, realistic vision, but one that works within the stage conventions of the 1940s, when the original production was considered a brave new blending of story, song and dance.
The show also was the first collaboration of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.
It's a simple story. Will Curly win over young Laurey and save her from the menacing hired hand, Jud Fry? And will they all be strong enough to face the wrenching changes that come with statehood?
But mostly we remember the songs: "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," "Kansas City" and "I Can't Say No" pile up against each other like an embarrassment of riches. If the performers can sing, they don't have to act very hard to make the show a success.
The ACT principal singers can mostly carry a tune, but ultimately, the tunes carry them.
Josh Harris doesn't look the leading man, lacks full vocal range and support for the music, and makes Curly a mite more awkward than the character requires. Laura McCray has almost the right lyrical voice for Laurey, but would benefit from more clarity and control. As the primary love interest, they can't overcome the scripting to evolve as a convincing couple.
Laurey spends most of the show keeping Curly at arm's length out of fear that "People Will Say We're in Love." They fall into each other's embrace only when Jud Fry becomes a physical threat, then too suddenly find themselves being married in the next scene.
The ACT production exacerbates the problem by speeding up the pace in the final scenes, blurring the action and the dialogue by a sudden rush to wrap up the conclusion. This burst of dramatic adrenaline may come from collective opening night nerves or a directorial decision to curtail the show's otherwise long playing time.
But when we lose much of Aunt Eller's inspirational speech to Laurey, catch only glimpses of Curly and Jud's knife fight through the legs of the crowd, and begin to wonder what's really going on during the trial, we must conclude that the runners are kicking too hard toward the finish line.
The most obvious way to shorten the playing time would be to cut the dream ballet that ends the 90-minute first act. But while the dance sequence doesn't always work in contemporary revivals, in this production it plays beautifully. The ballet not only showcases excellent performances by Stephanie Chang and Michael Feliciani, it dramatically illustrates Curly and Laurey's greatest fears. It's not extraneous it's a high point.
The best solution may simply be to let the drama play itself out in the final scenes with a more natural pace. If it holds us, we'll forgive the three-hour running time.
As in most productions, much of the fun in "Oklahoma!" comes from the supporting roles. Christopher Arsenaut and Jennifer Harris are very good as Will Parker and Ado Annie and choreography by Grace Bell Humerickhouse makes their duet on "All er Nuthin'" into a real gem.
Keith LaBryer is good as peddler Ali Hakim, Susan Pester punches up Aunt Eller, and Mike Humerickhouse hits the right dark notes as Jud. The large chorus is always on target with spirited dancing and singing.
Lina Jung Doo keeps the orchestra on track, Tom Giza's opening farmhouse tableau and simple set pieces work well, and the new sound system makes for much improved audibility.
Much in the ACT production proves that "Oklahoma!" isn't yet ready to be called a museum piece.