There’s no skimping in the big-theater production of “Oklahoma!” that opens this season’s Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, and the payoff is clear — a grand version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 American classic,
full of hearty singing and walloping dancing and loaded with people, too: 27 on stage and 13 in the orchestra pit.
The fluid staging by the festival’s associate artistic director, Dennis Razze, takes the best advantage of his riches; the show’s several crowd scenes actually look like a crowd. Fight director Rick Sordelet plays to that crowd — when things get rowdy, you can see how a scuffle breaks out in a mob. Michael McDonald has the job of dressing all these Oklahomans (several real ones are in the cast), and McDonald decks them out with what seems like a genuine backwoods territory feel in 1906, only months before Oklahoma became a state, our 46th.
Oklahoma is currently, in some parts, a storm-ravaged state, a situation the Shakespeare Festival acknowledges. The production is dedicated to its citizens and contribution boxes sit in the lobby, where audience members can donate to Habitat for Humanity, helping to rebuild homes and lives there. If there is any theatrical way to somehow honor those people, “Oklahoma!” is the way to go, with its down-home sensibility, its hearkening to prairie justice and its all-around sweetness.
This “Oklahoma!” highlights all that, in full accents that might be called Early American Rural — they’ve gun about as fer as they kin go. The cast is fully game, not just for the talking but for the character development, and when they sing – either solo or in unison – they do so amid David P. Gordon’s barnlike settings and with a spanking new (as they might have said back then) million-buck state-of-the-art sound system. The festival has greatly needed this in order to bring off the big musicals it takes on every year as one of its season shows. The immediate benefit shows in the execution of Matthew Given’s sound design, and even if the crew is still fine-tuning the balance for all those actors on stage, they have a good handle on how to make the sound work best.
The result is a show full of glorious singing with every lyric in place – and when you think of “Oklahoma!,” isn’t that what comes to mind from the very first “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” to the last rousing chorus of “Oklahoma!”? Curly, who delivers that first song, is the big-baritoned Doug Carpenter, wooing the wonderfully girlish Christine Negherbon, playing Laurey.
Their pals, Will (the sure-footed Sean McGee) and Ado Annie (the entertaining Julia Pfender, who rousingly sings how she can’t say no) are complemented by a peddler (Fran Prisco, exceptional), a heavy named Jud Fry (Brent Bateman, perfect in song, in his lonesome pain) and, well, the whole village. All of them are watched over by a wise and feet-on-the-ground Aunt Eller, played here as the perfect backwoods doyenne by Anne Lewis.
It’s easy to remember songs like “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” and “Kansas City,” where everything’s up to date, and “People Will Say We’re in Love” and even “Pore Jud Is Dead” (if you know your American theater songbook). What’s harder to remember about “Oklahoma!” is its solid book by Oscar Hammerstein II. I’m not sure how director Razze he does it – largely, I think, with very fine actors — but his direction brings the storyline to the fore in this version, which offers much more than the musical’s remarkable show tunes. There is chemistry on this stage and not just between the different love matchups, but among the entire cast.
And is there ever some mean dancing. Choreographer Stephen Casey has accessorized this “Oklahoma!” with big-arced whirls and joyous swirls and so much kicking, I thought I might somehow be pregnant. The cast breaks organically into these moves, which become a natural extension of the text and the lyrics.
And why not? “Oklahoma!” has no punches to telegraph because from the very beginning, you know who will end up happily ever after and who will end up in the ever-after. So you may as well live life to the fullest on stage as it plays out. Here, you can do that in the audience, too._
“Oklahoma!” plays through June 30 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival on DeSales University Campus, 2755 Station Avenue in Center Valley, a few miles north of Quakertown. 610-282-9455 or www.pashakespeare.org.