"Oklahoma!" is a true American classic. It quite literally changed the face of musical theater at its debut in 1943. The very first collaboration by Rodgers and Hammerstein, the play opened to rave reviews, a record run, and even a Pulitzer.
It offers one of the most beautiful scores ever, and who can listen to a line like "The wind is so busy it don't miss a tree" and deny the genius of the lyricist?
After nearly 70 years, this still should be on anyone's list of the five greatest American musicals of all time.
Due to the show's appeal and popularity, it has been frequently staged at all levels.
Indeed, one of my own first theater experiences was when the drama club at my high school put on the play. I loved it at once and immediately rushed out to buy the soundtrack.
That vinyl soundtrack was long ago worn out and replaced by CD.
In the intervening years, I have watched the movie version literally dozens of times (really!) and I have seen the stage version several times.
So it was with high anticipation of revisiting a favorite classic that I attended Peoria Players Theater's Friday night opening of the show's debut on PPT's stage.
I hoped beyond hope that they would give this beloved show its due. Instead I was given a decent but uneven and deeply flawed production that was badly directed.
In a much earlier post, I shared my pet peeve of people talking through the overture. In a musical, the overture is PART OF THE PLAY! And for this play in particular, the overture was one of the things that made it ground-breaking in 1943. It is a beautiful and lush intro that goes well over five minutes.
Well in the Player's production, the (recorded) overture abruptly ended only a couple of minutes in; before the rude folks even ended their chattering.
There was no fade-out. The music just stopped and the curtain went up. This was a very inauspicious beginning to say the least.
The lead roles of Curly and Laurey were played by Jordan Lehman and Sarah Mayo. Mr. Lehman has a good voice and good acting abilities. I blame his rote delivery of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" on poor direction rather than any lack of talent on his part. He needed to love and respect the words he was singing.
Ms. Mayo has a beautiful voice and her performance rose above the lack of direction.
Of the entire production, the truly standout performances were Amanda Bishop as Ado Annie and Aaron Elwell as Will Parker. These actors gave superb performances, both separately and in duet.
Sally Hodge was great as Aunt Eller and Alex Larson was perfectly cast in the non-musical role of Ali Hakim.
While Derek Childs did a good job as Jud Fry, it was hard to take him seriously in some of the worst makeup I have ever seen.
Jud Fry is a volatile and cruel character, but he is not intended to be a Zombie as his makeup suggested.
One of the bright spots of this production was the "dream ballet"; it was well staged and well executed.
Some of the other dance numbers, however, were way too crowded and roughly done. I felt like I was watching an early dress rehearsal rather than opening night.
The last and perhaps greatest insult of the evening was the finale featuring a surrey with the fringe on the side.
Yes, the surrey actually had fringe sewn on the sides of the seats and no top at all!
Even that high school production back in the 70's managed to come up with an actual surrey WITH THE FRINGE ON THE TOP!
I hate to beat up on director Bryan Blanks too much (he was also responsible for the uber-turkey "Xanadu" that opened Eastlight's season), but any director who would open with half an overture and close with a surrey with the fringe on the side clearly has no respect for or understanding of his material.
"Oklahoma!" runs through September 18th at the theater in Lakeview Park.