Fort Worth — Would someone please drop a wad of cash on Stolen Shakespeare Guild? Company founders Jason and Lauren Morgan already know how to cook up great musicals on a Hamburger Helper budget; no telling what they could do if some oil-and-gas nabob gave them a little something-something extra.
But SSG’s fresh and big-hearted production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! won’t leave you any time to fret about the tidy but bare-bones set or the pre-recorded music (a big “boo” to that). Nope, you’ll leave the theater in classic R&H style, humming a tune and thinking what a pleasure it is to see this show done very right. With both Morgans directing and Karen Matheny handling choreography—and some terrific singers onstage—Oklahoma! is a summertime, all-American treat.
What we often forget is that Oklahoma!’s young lovers—in fact, many of the characters—truly are just kids, teenagers of 16 or 18 in 1906, only starting to think about their own lives and futures. Boyish cowhands and giggling girls barely out of school, they’re told by the old folks that they’ve picked a great time to start in life, in a simple country with big ideals and bigger plans. It sounds a bit corn-fed to us, maybe, but think about this show: written during World War II, this wasn’t just a nostalgic look back at courtin’ days for Grandma and Grandpa (who would still have been around to see Oklahoma! on Broadway in 1943). It was a story about the “kids” of 1943, many off fighting the war in Europe and the Pacific, working in defense plants, waiting for sweethearts—lives at risk, futures on hold.
And that’s where evil, vengeful farmhand Jud Fry (a brooding Neil Rogers) comes in: he is the looming, dark presence of external evil, blocking these young folks’ path, threatening to snatch away life and love and hope. You can try to say Jud, whose story is given huge stage time in what’s otherwise a fairly lighthearted show, is the dark, violent streak that always traveled along with the brighter myths of the American West. But that doesn’t quite fit. So is he instead, perhaps, what must have been the always-there, nightmarish fear that hummed just under the “chin up” attitudes of mothers, fathers, soldiers, sweethearts in the war years—the fear of young lives cut short? You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma—we hope and pray.
And right now, right here, in this show, the kids are more than OK.
As Laurey, Oklahoma City University student Morgan Haney (yes, tapping the pipeline that gave us Kristin Chenoweth and Kelli O’Hara) has the rose-cheeked beauty of every boy’s first love, the sass of a Frank Capra heroine—and a pure, soaring soprano that will take her far.
Chris Ramirez is the aptly named Curly, who ambles onstage with “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” sporting a ‘50s style pompadour with a swooshy curl in front. Seen as the troubled Marine last year in Theatre Three’s Hands on a Hardbody, we know Ramirez has a big vocal sound, and he doesn’t disappoint. But his Curly is an unexpectedly offbeat charmer, full of bounce and brag, but honest and true of heart. He’s clearly mad about Laurey and she about him—if only they’d stop baiting each other long enough to admit it. Haney and Ramirez strike sparks; they can’t quite keep their hands off each other, even if they end up fighting and teasing.
So many of the supporting roles are comic turns of one kind or another—so isn’t it great that the comedy still works as well as the songs? Even when it’s a riff on the old “take my girl, please” joke, or a line about shotgun weddings, the laughter sounds genuine. Good for you, Mr. Hammerstein (he wrote the script), to write lines that still get the big laughs more than 70 years after.
Lana K. Hoover is feisty and wise as old Aunt Eller, who sees through Laurey and Curly’s scrapping to the love they share, and who isn’t afraid to wave a shotgun to make things turn out right in her world. Tim Brawner is cowhand Will Parker, in love with fickle-hearted Ado Annie (a delightfully “I Cain’t Say No” Becca Brown). They’re crack-up funny together or apart, and Brawner’s confused attempts to get and keep the 50 dollars Will needs to get Ado’s father’s blessing to marry…well, he’s not smart, but he is hilarious.
Neil Rogers is a dark, muscular presence as Jud, and his fine voice sends a shiver down the spine. Not a guy to get crosswise of. Alex Bigus has positively vaudevillian comic timing as the love-‘em-and-leave-‘em peddler Ali Hakim. He’s trying hard to escape Ado Annie, and can’t understand Will’s obsession. You want to marry her? “On purpose?” Hakim asks, amazed. Bigus and the chorus of cowboys get to sing an often-cut (but funny) comic song, “It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage”—about pretty girls and their angry, shotgun-toting dads.
The dozen or so ladies and gents of the ensemble show off some fine voices, and they can act and dance, too: Matheny has choreographed nicely skirt-swishing dances for the women and cowboy boot stompers for the guys. Especially tuneful are the slightly ‘40s, Andrews-sister close harmonies the ladies create with Laurey in songs such as “Out of Your Dreams” and “Many a New Day.” Lucy Shea’s high-pitched trill (as the girl Curly’s using to make Laurey jealous) is just what it should be: awful. And Delmar H. Dolbier, though not a singer, is fine and forceful as Carnes, the community leader and judge who tries to keep this bunch of kids in line.
This is a whole bunch of folks to keep moving on a small stage, but the directing team keeps the energy flowing and there are plenty of costume changes to engage the eye (a nice array from designer Lauren Morgan and her team). Bryan Douglas does some fine spotlight work for Jud’s big scene and Laurey’s dream—and the use of a pre-fab orchestral accompaniment works surprisingly well, especially when the quality of the singers is this high.
If there was a live orchestra, this would be Rodgers & Hammerstein done very, very right. If you haven’t seen Oklahoma! for a while, or would love to share it with some young folks in your life—don’t miss this show.