May 16, 2017
“Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends . . .”
—Oscar Hammerstein II
My first thought as the “Oklahoma!” cast gathered for an opening-night photo at the Engeman Theater was that there’s no way there are any farmers in this picture. But Curly (aka Bryant Martin) corrected me. He was raised on a Pennsylvania dairy farm. Full disclosure: This critic was raised on a Maryland dairy farm. (Martin’s dad sells milk to Land O’Lakes; mine sold to Breyer’s.)
Cowman Curly longs to spark with farm girl Laurey. But on the eve of the box-social square dance and auction, Laurey says her date is Aunt Eller’s surly farmhand, Jud. Nothing changes her mind, not even Curly’s “Surrey With the Fringe on Top.” It’s hard to imagine another song that could follow “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” which opens this groundbreaking Broadway classic. Martin leads both numbers with a voice you’d swear could be heard all the way from the title territory to Northport. Or at least to Kansas City, where “everything’s gone about as fer as it can go.” That’s where none-too-bright Will won $50 at the state fair to woo Ado Annie, the girl who “Cain’t Say No.” For a dowry in that amount, Annie’s dad will marry her off. But Will spends it instead on gifts for her. So now, she’s promised to Ali, the “Persian” peddler.
Tragicomic conflicts ensue in this grand new presentation of the show that practically invented the book musical in which songs are written to develop character and plot rather than accessorize them. Martin’s vigor as Curly is matched by Kaitlyn Davidson’s stubborn but vulnerable Laurey. Kelly Sheehan, her dream ballet double, another “Oklahoma!” innovation, originated by Agnes de Mille and choreographed here by Drew Humphrey, is as riveting as she is dramatic.
Annie (Brianne Kennedy), Ali (Danny Gardner) and Will (Chris Brand) sharply angulate a comic-relief triangle, while Jane Blass as Aunt Eller gamely referees a farmer-vs.-cowman peace. Struggling for peace within himself is Jud, played by Nathaniel Hackmann with the glowering intensity he brought to the evil half of Engeman’s recent “Jekyll & Hyde.”
Director Igor Goldin’s vision is framed by the barnlike DT Willis set and amplified by Jeff Theiss’ orchestra delivering Richard Rodgers’ flawless, tear-inducing score.
“People Will Say We’re in Love” with this show. Let ’em.