|Jade Tate, Benjamin Philip, and Sarah Thornton.|
Photo by Sarah Ominksi.
Judging from the turnout at Sunday’s matinee, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma still has the power to draw huge and enthusiastic audiences 75 years after its 1943 Broadway debut. Overall, Theatre in the Grove’s ambitious undertaking of the first American musical to thoroughly integrate the music with the story works well, managing to keep the audience engaged despite its length (over three hours with intermission, as Director Jason Weed opted not to delete any of the show’s musical or dance numbers). A few bobbles and probably unavoidable casting decisions are all that prevent the production from crossing over the line from fine community theater to fine theater – but there are enough great moments and superb performances that any Oklahoma fan, or any lover of classic musical theater, will be glad they made time to see the show.
Set in the Oklahoma Territory in 1906, just before Oklahoma was granted statehood, the show tells the story of farm girl Laurey Williams and her beau, cowboy Curly McLain. While the young couple stubbornly refuse to admit their feelings for each other, Laurey is also courted (or perhaps “stalked” is a better word) by farmhand Jud Frye, an angry misfit whose longing for young Laurey leads to a world of trouble and hurt. A secondary story is the tale of Laurey’s friend Ado Annie, a libidinous young thing who juggles the ardor of her absent boyfriend Will Parker and the all-too-present traveling peddler, Ali Hakim. Underlying the action is the tension between the homesteaders and the cowboys, fences and plows vs. cattle on the open range. Contemporary themes of uniting a divided society and addressing sexist double standards ring true today – and Jud Frye’s story is frighteningly relevant in an era just coming to grips with the relationship between societal rejection, casual bullying, and mass murder.
Austin Hampshire, a newcomer to TITG (and to acting – he’s a classically trained vocalist just transitioning to theatrical performance) brings his lovely voice to Curly’s big numbers like “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’’ and “Surrey with the Fringe On Top.” It’s a stretch for him to completely master the role’s arrogant cowboy swagger, but he makes a game attempt and establishes some believable chemistry with Jade Tate’s Laurey. Tate and Hampshire blend beautifully in “People Will Say We’re In Love,” and Hampshire’s slyly heartless delivery of “Pore Jud Is Daid” is a real highlight of the show.
I applaud the decision to cast Tate as Laurey – the petite brunette doesn’t look like any Laurey I’ve seen before, but she brings tenacity to the role that belies her fragile appearance, and she completely nails both solos and duets. Brandon Weaver turns in a stunning and original performance as Jud Frye – he finds an intriguing middle ground between aggressor and victim that expresses a very 21st century view of Frye’s angry and tortured character.
Sarah Thornton creates a marvelous Ado Annie – cute as a bug, funny, insouciant, and just dumb enough to justify her thoroughly wacky behavior. The chemistry between Thornton and Scott Smith (Will Parker) is inspired, their story lightens up a sometimes dark tale, and he handles the challenging song and dance routine required in “Kansas City” like a pro. Benjamin Philip’s broadly comic take on Ali Hakim is often brilliant – when he’s supposed to be center stage he grabs our attention and elicits lots of well-deserved laughter. However, there are moments when he needs to turn down the flame a bit and just blend with the ensemble – and while it’s amusing there’s just no room for a Charlie Chapin imitation in Oklahoma.
In a huge cast with lots of key roles, other standout performances come in from Robin Michaels (Aunt Eller), Bud Reece (Andrew Carnes), Kate Barrett (Gertie Cummings), and dancers Amelia Michaels, Lue Harrelson, Kassie Switzer, and Matthew Hampshire.
Weed’s decision to place the orchestra on stage works well, despite the loss of space for the large cast. The skilled performers look natural in the gazebo that evokes a small-town bandstand, and the few moments when the actors briefly interact with musicians are a nice touch. The rest of the set is equally effective – a lovely backdrop, convincing farmhouse, and darkly sinister hovel (that moves quickly – a real plus!) for Jud Frye’s grimy smokehouse. Brian Ollom’s lighting design complements much of the action, although the lighting in the dream sequence would work better if the second half were much darker.
Theatre in the Grove has picked a sure-fire winner – they clearly understand the community and know how to keep the customers satisfied. While there are no really bad seats in the theater, the best spots often go early, so it’s a good idea to buy in advance.
Oklahoma is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through April 29th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.