By Sharon Falduto
Iowa City - There’s a reason Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are so popular, beloved, and often produced, and that reason is that they are just very good shows.
I had a great time at Iowa City Community Theatre’s production of “Oklahoma.” Each actor was a joy to watch, the show was well-paced and engaging, the set was a masterpiece of simplicity, and the band was phenomenal.
“Oklahoma!” is a love story set in the Oklahoma territory at the dawn of the 20th century. It’s not quite a state yet, and resident Laurey Williams isn’t quite ready to admit yet that she really does love Curly. She’s a strong country girl, she doesn’t faint at the sight of a man, and she’s certainly not going to go off with him to the Box Sociable just because he talks purty about a “surrey with the fringe on top.”
Megan Keiser was a strong Laurey, with a determined steel poise and a slight smirk playing at her jaw as she traded quips with Curley. Because of her strong demeanor and poise, her fear and dependency when threatened by Jud stands out in even starker contrast. Her singing is lovely and her verve is palpable.
Joe Mosher’s Curly is a good country fellow, who stands bowlegged as a good cowboy should and belts his songs earnestly to the audience. We take an instant liking to him and understand why he should be the object of Laurey’s affection, even if she won’t admit that he is.
The show’s secondary love story is that of Will Parker, played by Dave Helmuth, and Ado (that’s ay-doe) Annie (Betsy Litman). Ado Annie’s pa told Will that he can’t marry her until he scrapes together $50, but every time he does so, he spends the money on something for Ado Annie—which means he no longer has the money. Meantime, while he’s trying to get the dough, she’s playing the field with other men. Litman’s fresh faced innocence while she sings of being a girl who “cain’t say no” is a delightful paradox that endears her to the audience, even as she strings along both rugged but bewildered Will and the peddler man who’d be happy to be rid of her, Ali Hakim. Don’t try to pronounce that name with an Middle Eastern accent, by the way. This man may be from Persia, but in Oklahoma, his name is Alley Hackem. He’s played by Ali Ajram, who provided excellent comedic support with his long sighs and slumped shoulders each time he seems to be about to be buffaloed into marrying Ado Annie or some other gal.
Nicole DeSalle’s Aunt Eller is one of those characters who is kind, placid, and beloved by everyone. She never seems to get riled up; just laughs at the antics of all the young ‘uns who pass by her farm on the way to the box sociable, where each gent will bid on a lunch hamper and then will dine with the girl who packed it. She even invites the peddler who sold her a faulty egg beater in for a meal. Her engaging smile wins everyone over.
The ensemble provided just the right amount of fun and vigor as they danced and sang across stage, appearing as lovely tripping bridesmaids or as menacing burlesque dancers.
The show’s antihero is Jud Fry (Jeffrey Allen Mead), a lonely hired hand who works on Laurey’s farm and holds a torch for Laurey. Although she doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, she agrees to let him drive her to the sociable anyway, just to dig at Curly. It becomes clear as the show develops that she is actually afraid of Jud Fry, and not without good reason. Mead’s intensity and lack of good intentions become apparent as he glowers through his solo, “Lonely Room,” and the audience becomes frightened of him as well. Though not much physically larger than Mosher’s Curly, he manages to seem twice as large and threatening with his powerful stance and slow but intentional speech.
The dream ballet sequence at the end of the first act was beautifully choreographed, tightly directed, and moved the show along the way dream sequences so frequently don’t. Laurey falls asleep and first dreams a happy dream that she and Curly are together, and then veers into nightmare territory ending with a menacing Jud carrying her offstage like a sack of potaters as her face dissolves in horror.
It’s a surprisingly dark plot in a musical filled with hope and honesty and lust for life. I’ve never heard another musical in which one character encourages another to off himself in a jaunty duet, “Poor Jud is Daid.” This reviewer wonders if suicide was taken more lightly in 1943, when this musical was first performed.
The language in the show is wonderful; the farmers grow pertaters and termaters, Ado Annie cain’t say no, Curly encourages Jud to envision his own funeral when he is “daid,” and the territory folk are headed to a box sociable instead of the less prosaic box social.
The set was simple but great; easily moved boxes indicating Laurey and Aunt Eller’s house, the smoke house where Jud lived, and the out-of-doors where the auction for the picnic hampers takes place.
The live band that supports the piece is fantastic, never overpowering the actors, providing musical commentary and background sound to the show. They even play along with the story of the show when they don cow ears and Curly sings about them.
Each song is a gem; some of them you probably recognize even if you’ve never seen the show. How often have we seen a sunrise and someone singing “Oh what a beautiful morning?” The lyrics were sharp and the vocalists were clear.
I had a really great time at this show. If you’re the sort of person who loves musicals you absolutely won’t be disappointed by this one. If you’re the sort who thinks they’re corny, I’d advise you to see this one anyway—you may just be surprised by how enjoyable it is.
It’s the sort of show that makes you think that although times were surely tough for farmers and cowmen in the Territory days, it might just have been a great time and place to live, where everyone was a friend and life was less complicated.
Oklahoma! runs through May 5 at the Johnson County Fairgrounds. Tickets here.