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At Trinity – ‘Oklahoma’ sings and soars

Review by Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

In some productions of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma the corn isn’t only “as high as an elephant’s eye,” it also is as deep as its rump.

However, that objection can’t be leveled at the compelling version of the play currently on stage at Trinity Rep. No syrupy emulation of a bus and truck production, this Oklahoma is much more than a feel-good revival. It is fresh, alive, and deeply affecting, more true opera than horse opera.

Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynne Riggs and first performed in 1943, Oklahoma is generally considered to be the archetype for the modern musical. It set the bar for all musical theater that came after it. Over the years, though, it has seemed to morph into a mellowed-out faded caricature of the very form it invented.

By contrast, Trinity Rep takes on the famed book and score with a clear-eyed, heart-gripping rendition of the story. It resonates with passion and vitality.

The husband and wife team of Richard and Sharon Jenkins directs the show. He is the company’s former artistic director, acting troupe member, and Emmy Award-winning, Oscar-nominated film and television actor, and she is a well-known and renowned choreographer and director.

The production is on stage through June 5 in the Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater upstairs at the Lederer Theater Center, 201 Washington St. in Providence.

Set in 1906 the story takes place in the changing cultural context of the Oklahoma territory as it is poised on the brink of statehood. A mixed population of dirt farmers and cattle herders makes for an uneasy, volatile political and social climate in this place where status is determined and defended by whether you advocate the open range or fenced in cropland.

The story is probably familiar to most fans of musical theater. Curly, a cowboy, is smitten with Laurey, who runs a farm. She reciprocates his feelings but resists confessing them to him, prizing her independence, and believing he is a bit too presumptuous and casual in his courting approach. His seeming lack of seriousness and paucity of funds figure into it too.

Another couple, Will Parker, who is also a cowboy, and Ado Annie Carnes, a settler’s daughter, offer a parallel subplot, but it is more focused on the comic elements. The barrier to Will’s pursuit of Annie owes mostly to his lack of resources.

Annie’s wavering constancy, due to her inability to refuse the advances of anyone who romances her, is a problem all its own. It is illustrated by the fact that while Will is off at a steer-roping contest in Kansas City, where he hopes to win enough money to ask Annie’s father for her hand, she has become involved with a Persian peddler named Ali Hakim.

The peddler is broadly drawn. He is a parody of the reluctant lover, interested in Ado Annie only for what he can get from her in the way of sexual favors, a fact that earns him her father’s rage. This makes him a potential target for the old man’s readily available shotgun unless Ali Hakim is willing make an honest woman of her.

Laurey’s Aunt Eller is the voice of experience and reason that often represents the audience’s point of view. She offers perspective on the machinations she observes. A lesser, but important, main character is Andrew Carnes, Ado Annie’s father, who also is the local judge.

To get a reaction from Curly, Laurey agrees to let her hired hand, Jud Fry, accompany her to the big event in town, a box lunch picnic and dance, a decision she immediately regrets. At the affair suitors will get to bid in an auction on the food hampers of the various young women in order to become their date for the evening. Jud and Curly are both intent on winning Laurey’s basket and her company.

Jud is the socially inept, deprived and angry nemesis of Curly. Living alone in a smokehouse on the farm, he is bitter and brooding and wallowing in loneliness. Longing for acceptance, he both pines for and lusts after Laurey, whose affection he believes will give him the respect he wants but can’t get. Menacing and unpredictable, he is the obstacle to Laurey and Curly surmounting their prideful standoff and getting together at last.

Everything is destined to come to a head at the box lunch social and things don’t go well. Curly and Jud have a confrontation that sets the stage for a fight that ultimately leads to Jud’s death later after Curly and Laurey have married and Jud confronts them.

But wait a minute, here. This is a musical. So, as these plot elements are introduced and set in motion we get to hear some of the most memorable numbers in the Broadway canon, things like “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, “People Will Say We’re in Love” and the great closing number “Oklahoma”.

What makes this vehicle special is the way plot and music, story and song, are woven together and work off of each other. Using heart and not forgetting soul, Oklahoma tells its tale memorably by fusing the tragic and the comic, the epic and the mundane, into a whole that is often greater than the sum of its parts. Trinity restores its impact by restoring the balance some productions ignore, giving equal value to its light and dark elements. While they give full play to the music and comedy, they also don’t turn away from the violence and sadness.

On a space that is as wide as the theater and spreads out onto several platforms among the seats on all sides of the hall, the players have all the room they need to create a performance that is expansive in most every way.

The company is more than equal to the task they have set themselves, offering powerful drama, exquisite dancing, and superb singing throughout.

Charlie Thurston, one of the younger members of the permanent repertory company, shines brightly as Curly, displaying a marvelous voice to go with his acting chops.

As Laurey, Rachael Warren is cast in a role she was born to play. She brings her exceptional singing talent to the part, and she supplies a nuanced interpretation of Laurey’s complicated character with its precursor elements of feminism born of the frontier necessity for independence. She excels in showing this to us.

Jude Sandy, who was just added to the permanent company, is strong as Will Parker, all large and engaging as the cowpoke who can’t hang onto his money or his woman without enormous effort. He dances and sings well and has a gift for the comic moment.

Large kudos are deserved as well for Rebecca Gibel, who gives a riotous performance as a sexually overheated Ado Annie. Her hilarious antics that have her trembling with manic pent up desire bring the audience to a gleeful boil. She reveals a powerful, pleasing vocal instrument too.

Stephen Thorne does a long comic turn as Ali Hakim, the peddler. The character’s nimble wit and ability to think on his feet are called into play repeatedly, and Thorne devours the opportunity like a crafty wolf happening onto red meat.

In a scene where he is trying to say good-bye to Ado Annie with one last kiss and she imploringly lures him back for more with her mouth hungrily wide open, he and Gibel have the house in an uproar.

Janice Duclos offers a measured, sure, and steady interpretation of Aunt Eller that provides a solid anvil against which the other performers can hammer out the shape of their parts, a true ensemble actor’s gift to her cohorts.

Special notice must be given to Joe Wilson, Jr. who offers up the most definitive take on Jud Fry you will likely ever witness. He pulls back the curtain on the inner despair, the turmoil that motivates the frustration and rage that other productions with other actors ask us to accept as given. He makes Jud more human, more complex, and his flaws more understandable even if we can’t accept the costs. As a consequence, his demise is seen as tragic in ways not always revealed or perceived. Wilson makes Jud’s pain palpable, his bitterness intolerable. It is a fine piece of acting.

Tom Gleadow does well as Ado Annie’s father, Andrew Carnes, making the character funny, but ballasted with enough anger and menace to maintain a necessary balance and edge.

The other singers and dancers in the ensemble are all first rate. The “Out of My Dreams” dream ballet at the end of Act one is simply grand. No weak links anywhere.

The house lights remain on for a good part of the show since a lot of the action takes place in various parts of the theater. The Eugene Lee set, a plywood wall suggesting a construction site, isn’t much to look at, but it serves multiple purposes. One will make you jump out of your seat.

A wonderful band supplies the music that measures up to any that a Broadway tour of Oklahoma might boast.

This is an Oklahoma that will have you saying A-YIP-I-O-EE-AY for sure!