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Covedale Stages a Classic With Oklahoma!

Review by Doug Iden of Oklahoma!: Covedale Theatre

There’s a bright, golden haze on the Covedale as the beloved musical Oklahoma gallops onto the stage at Cincinnati Landmark Productions.  Based upon the play Green Grow the Lilacs, Oklahoma tells the simple story about two men who want to take a young woman to a box social. However, there is a lot more going on than that.

This is a landmark musical, the second one engineered by Oscar Hammerstein II.  Oklahoma and its predecessor Showboat created the integrated musical that we know today.  Both productions totally merged the music and lyrics seamlessly with the story, and both dealt with social issues not conventional with “musical comedies” of the day.  Despite the seemingly innocuous story line, Oklahoma deals with sexual obsession, attempted murder and pornography.  It also has the first true villain in musicals with the character of Jud Fry.  Additionally, this show wove dance into the plot as we see in the first act finale with dancers reenacting the plot in microcosm to the music of “Out of My Dreams”.

The opening overture features dancers doing snippets of longer dances they will perform during the longer versions of the songs.  This was an interesting touch that I had not seen before.  The play opens quietly with an older woman, Aunt Eller (played by Julia Hasl Miller) alone on the stage churning butter.  From offstage, we hear a man singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”.  The man, Curly McClain (Evan Koons) appears on stage and finishes the song.  He’s come, ostensibly, to invite Aunt Eller’s niece Laurey Williams (Jessica Kaiser) to the box social but Laurey is acting very standoffish.  It’s clear to the audience that they are in love with each other but the characters don’t seem to know that.  The verbal repartee continues as Curly tells Laurie that he has rented a “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” in which he plans to drive her.  She is momentarily mesmerized but, when Curly admits he just make it up, they revert to verbally sparring with each other.

Along comes our villain, Jud Fry (Mike Sherman) who talks Laurie into going to the affair with him.  Fry is a hired hand who, we find out later, has a lecherous obsession with Laurie which will lead to serious complications.

We also meet the comic relief couple (standard for musicals of the day) with Ado Annie (Heather Hale) and Will Parker (Logan Weinfurtner).  Will Parker has been competing in a rodeo and wins the $50 that Ado Annie’s father (Andrew Carnes played by Jamie Steele) insists he has before Will can marry his daughter.  Will celebrates by singing and dancing to the comic number “Everything’s Up to Date In Kansas City”.  While Will is gone, however, Ado Annie gets lonely and becomes aggressively flirtatious with the peddler Ali Hakim (Brandon Bentley).  We become aware of Ado Annie’s feelings with the humorous song “I Cain’t Say No”.  A second level of comedy ensues when Andrew Carnes threatens Hakim with a shotgun wedding.  The ongoing gag is that Hakim wants to woo the local girls while staying single.  He plays the part well.

A dramatic moment in the play is the mordantly dark song “Pore Jud is Dead” in which Curly tries to convince Jud to commit suicide.  Jud shows Curly his “dirty pictures” but is not taken in by Curly’s mock concern with his problem.  Curly leaves and then we hear a plaintive soliloquy “Lonely Room”.  The character of Fry is crucial to the success of the show.  If the audience doesn’t believe that Fry is inherently evil, the play doesn’t work.  It’s this character that elevates Oklahoma above the average musical.  Sherman as Fry projects the proper venal antipathy toward Curly and an unabashed obsession for Laurie.  He also has a good singing voice in his two songs.

The production is somewhat mixed.  CLP newcomer Evan Koons had a nervous start with his singing but, by the love song, began to hit his stride.  He has a good voice but it took a while to manifest itself.  He did a good job, however, portraying the cocky, self-assured Curly.  You could believe that Laurie could love him but might be put off with his arrogance.  Jessica Kaiser as Laurie does hit the mark with a strong singing voice and good acting varying between a snarky repartee with Curly to sincere fear of Jud Fry.  Kaiser sings “Many a New Day” and “Out of My Dreams” well along with some fancy dancing and teams with Koons on the conditional love song “People Will Say We’re in Love”.

The comic duo of Ado Annie (Heather Hale) and Will Parker (Weinfurtner) are charming while singing the disingenuous song of fidelity “All ‘Er Nothin’”.  Hale has a good voice and Parker dances well.

Dancing is crucial to the show.  Agnes DeMille’s original choreography called for dancing integrated with the plot but also a style of “folk” dancing that would be used by the characters which, in Oklahoma, would be a form of square dancing.  Director/Choreographer Maggie Perrino has incorporated DeMille’s concept with a lot of square dancing style dancing.  But choreography is more than just dancing – it is also movement.  In this case, the movement is the way in which the cowboys stride on stage.  They shuffle like a man who spends a lot of time on a horse.  The entire male ensemble uses this shambling style of walking and dancing.  The dancing was a little mixed but I give Perrino credit for trying to incorporate as much of the dancing as possible in the show.  The entire ensemble, including many of the leads, were involved in the dancing.  The ensemble also had a good collective choral voice with a highlight being the rousing title song “Oklahoma”.   Despite a murderous attempt by Jud Fry, the show, predictably, has a happy ending.

Oklahoma is a good show which will get better as the run progresses.  Oklahoma continues at the Covedale theater through April 29.