On March 31, 55 years ago, the golden age of the American musical was born. It is easy to imagine the shiver the audience must have experienced on that opening night, when the houselights went down and, without an overture, the curtain rose on a farmhouse and a windmill etched against a clean slate of a sky.
Offstage, a man began to sing: "There's a bright golden haze on the meadow . . . " Strolling in from the wings, as the song gathered its soaring strength, the cowboy burst into an unforgettable melody: "Oh, what a beautiful morning/Oh, what a beautiful day!/I've got a beautiful feeling/Everything's going my way." That musical landmark was the debut of Oklahoma!, which would run for 2,212 performances and become the longest-running musical in history. Like Babe Ruth's home-run record, a run of that length was thought to be unsurpassable--until My Fair Lady topped it 13 years later. Oklahoma! was also the first collaboration of a couple of theatre giants, each of whom already had established himself as the best in his field. Oscar Hammerstein II had written the book for that greatest of American musicals, Showboat in 1927. Richard Rodgers had written a string of hits with Lorenz Hart, including The Boys From Syracuse and Babes in Arms.
Teaming up, Rodgers and Hammerstein became synonymous with the American musical theatre, giving us Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music. But it was Oklahoma! that provided the breakthrough. For the first time, songs were integrated into the unfolding story, the music and lyrics advancing the plot and characters, providing a seamless new form in which music, dance and drama were synthesized into one fabric. Oklahoma! was itself based on a great play, Lynn Riggs' 1931 masterpiece Green Grow the Lilacs. The work had introduced a new form that would come to be recognized as "lyrical realism," and much of the strength of the musical can be attributed to the brilliance of its source material. If you squint your eyes at Vivian Matalon's four-square revival of Oklahoma! currently being offered as a co-production of the Arizona Theatre Company and the Phoenix Symphony at Symphony Hall, you can conjure up the magic that must have accompanied the premiäre. Matalon's production is faithful to a fault, like Fred Zinnemann's 1955 film version that starred Shirley Jones, Gordon MacRae and the young Rod Steiger.
In its present incarnation, the simple story of a young cowboy named Curly and his courtship of a young lady named Laurey doesn't really take off until the famous dream ballet that closes the first act. Their wooing is complicated by a brooding farmhand named Jud (played with magnetic intensity by Michael Gruber).
As Curly, Jeff Stafford sings well enough, and conveys a boyish charm, utterly guileless and naive. It is an "Aw, shucks" kind of performance that eschews shadings or dimension. This Curly would be at home in Dogpatch.
Becky Watson has the voice and the beauty for a winning Laurey, but again, hers is a performance untroubled by subtlety. In supporting roles, Marsha Bagwell is a hearty Aunt Eller and Adam Matalon brings a welcome cynicism as a traveling Persian peddler, Ali Hakim, who is unwittingly forced to compete for the hand of Ado Annie, that "girl who can't say no." The courtship that composes this secondary plot is played broadly and desperately by Kelli Maguire (who has a voice like Rosie Perez) as Ado Annie and Jay Douglas as her beau, Will Parker. Together, they screech their songs in an attempt to squeeze every conceivable comic ounce from material that should be effortlessly funny. The strain is so tiresome, it kills many of their laughs.
With the exception of these two, the principals all sing well, and they sound lovely with the rich accompaniment of the Phoenix Symphony, under the baton of Jack Lee. Surprisingly, it is the supporting musical ensemble that is tenuous at best, never able to give full glory to the thrilling songs.
The ensemble likely was chosen for its dancing skills, because it is here that the revival excels, although the choreographer Joey McKneely owes an enormous (but uncredited) debt to Agnes DeMille, whose original musical staging revolutionized dance in the theatre. The sets by R. Michael Miller are routine, moving somewhat clumsily from scene to scene, but surely director Matalon's old-fashioned concept is to blame. Richard Nelson's lambent, textured lighting is spoiled only by the relentless follow-spot, whose hard edge erases the magic at every turn. The costumes by David Loveless are fine, although Curly seems uncomfortable with the fit of his Stetson, nervously adjusting it throughout the show.
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On opening night, the sound design by Otts Munderloh was tremendously overamplified, but perhaps this will abate as the cast attunes itself to the space.
The British director Vivian Matalon is an odd choice for this most American of musicals. He delivers this classic in a conventional way, but what an opportunity has been missed to re-explore Oklahoma! with a fresh vision for the '90s.
Still, it will be a hard heart that is not stirred when the cast gets to the obligatory finale. As it belts out the title song with a musical expertise we have been waiting for all evening, the relevance of this revival truly resonates. Through the lens of the recent tragedy in Oklahoma City, we see an isolated loner threaten the well-being of his community. The shadow of Timothy McVeigh endows the character of Jud Fry with a new dimension of horror.
The rousing finale is a stirring tribute to the many acts of bravery we witnessed in the aftermath of that explosion, and you will want to join the cast with the ringing affirmation: "Oklahoma--okay!