When “Oklahoma!” opened 75 years ago, it announced a revolution in musical theater. The first collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein radically broke with tradition. Instead of opening the show with a Ziegfeld-esque spectacle involving dozens of bedazzled chorines hoofing over a fantastical set, Rodgers and Hammerstein brought the lights up on a nearly empty stage. Offstage, a lone voice sang about the weather. The break with the rules continued throughout the musical. The dancing in “Oklahoma!” didn’t stop the show – it furthered the plot and deepened the characters.
When: Through June 10
Where: Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire
Tickets: $50 – $60
Run time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission
Musically, “Oklahoma!” still works. But the Marriott Lincolnshire’s revival sits uneasily in a contemporary context. The musical doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel Test. You’ll lose count of how many times women are referred to as items to be bought and owned. And in director Aaron Thielen’s interpretation of the 1906-set classic, “Oklahoma!” is populated by characters under 30 or eligible for AARP; there’s nobody in between.
Finally (spoiler alert to newbies), there’s the guy who gets stabbed to death in the final act. If the ruggedly handsome cowboy killer is Homecoming King, the dead man was the ostracized weirdo who sat alone at lunch while the jocks hacked loogies at him. As his killer rides off into the sunset with his new bride, everybody slaps on a smile and bursts into song. No one mourns the dead guy. It’s bothersome.
The cast of “Oklahoma!” sounds magnificent. As the strapping cowboy Curly, Brandon Springman makes “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” sound like sunrise on a Saturday morning. When the women break into the “Many a New Day,” they do so with a lilting, pert independence. In the achingly beautiful romance of “People Will Say We’re in Love,” you’ll find yourself square at the intersection of love, wonder and music.
The plot – inspired by the Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play “Green Grow the Lilacs” — centers on spritely farm girl Laurey (Jennie Sophia) who falls in love with cowboy Curly. Complications arise (sort of) when hired hand Jud Fry (Shea Coffman ) also falls in love with Laurey. Their pals Ado Annie (Michelle Lauto, delivering a high-spirited “I Cain’t Say No”) and Will Parker (Aaron Umsted, doing some mighty fancy rope work in “Kansas City”) bring plenty of comic relief, particularly after Annie gets entangled with the “Persian” peddler Ali Hakim (Evan Tyrone Martin, making the most of fast-talking salesman/bamboozler.) In the end, everybody lives happily ever after with a song on their lips and statehood looming in their future.
Thielen has made some intriguing tweaks to Oklahoma!” In the original, nothing is ever said about Laurey’s absent parents. Since the headstrong young woman is living with her Aunt Eller (Susan Moniz), we’re to conclude she’s an orphan. Thielen — with an able assist from choreographer Alex Sanchez — inserts a preamble ballet that takes the audience back to the day Laurey’s parents died. It’s a beautifully choreographed companion to the overture, rendered with care and nuance by Sophia, Mary Lou Hlava as Young Laurey and Benita Bunger as Dream Laurie.
Throughout, Thielen has added perceptive details. The toil never ends in 1906 Oklahoma, so when Aunt Eller, et al, are sitting down, it’s always with a bowl of peas to shell or potatoes to peel or grain to sift. Nobody’s hands are idle, everyone’s hems are caked in dust. There’s Moniz’s posture as Aunt Eller, a woman who is accustomed to being in charge and Moniz gives her an authoritative sprawl. Aunt Eller thoroughly owns the space she moves through.
Set designer Kevin Depinet has crafted a world of rough-hewn planks and wide-open spaces. Marriott’s difficult in-the-round stage is ringed with burlap screens lit up with vistas of rolling prairies and distant mountains by projection designer Anthony Churchill. (It’s a design that evokes the groundbreaking Todd-AO technology that made the movie version of “Oklahoma!” so visually arresting.)
About 25 years out from the setting for “Oklahoma!,” the state would become the starving epicenter of the Dustbowl. That’s a long way from the shiny, happy world of the musical. At the Marriott, so are any serious attempts to grapple with the issues that make the musical far more complex than the basic spelling of the title tune.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.