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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Want to talk to you. Whut made you slap that whip onto Old Eighty, and nearly make her run away? Whut was yer hurry? — Jud
.Fraid we'd be late fer the party. — Laurie
You didn't want to be with me by yerself—not a minnit more'n you had to. — Jud
Why, I don't know whut you're talking about! I'm with you by myself now, ain't I? — Laurie
Brynn O'Malley (Laurey) and Adam Monley (Curley)
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein )
Who cares if the corn is as high as an elephant's eye as long as the 14 hit songs that gush out ofOklahoma! add up to one rousing show? Although there was an audible groan from a few when conductor-musical director Tom Helm cut to the chase and reduced the famous overture to a few bars of the title song, anticipation for a lively staging of the classic musical had not yet been noticeably diminished. It is fortuitous that the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the landmark Rodgers & Hammerstein musical is also cause to celebrate the 70th birthday (platinum anniversary) of the Paper Mill Playhouse, the venerable institution recently saved from extinction by a local government bailout (yep, not unlike the other one you've been reading about).

It may seem a little ungracious of me to remark that while the score retains its ever-bright golden melodic haze, the corn-fed book (based on Lynn Rigg's Green Grow The Lilacs) seems just a little more vacant than what we have grown accustomed to over the years. Don't get me wrong, I still get just as much of a kick at the first sight of sassy Aunt Eller dexterously churning the butter as I do in noting how lackadaisically Curly welcomes the day's chores with "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning." What I sensed this time .round, and likely the result of James Brennan's cheerily lackadaisical direction, was the general lack of purpose in the principals. Certainly the show's lovers, Curly and Laurie, are about as tedious a pair as have ever occupied a musical's plot. As portrayed by Adam Monley and Brynn O'Malley, respectively, they are even less affecting than they have a right to be.

Thank heavens there is the magic of the music to help counter both Curly and Laurie's inherent and persistent clinging to emotional immaturity. Monley, who last appeared at the Paper Mill as Romeo in a musical called Romeo and Bernadette, is commendable enough as Curly without putting a particularly distinguishing mark on the role. He is, however, good-looking and sings well enough to lure a mindless ingénue into a surrey with a fringe.

O'Malley, who may be remembered by Paper Mill audiences as Esther in Meet Me in St. Louis, has the misfortune of having to wear a really ratty-looking brunette wig and having her voice cruelly sabotaged by faulty electronic enhancement. This had the effect of making her singing sound strident. But let's give her this: when it's time for her to bat her long eyelashes at Curly during "People Will Say We're in Love" she almost makes us forget she's been otherwise mean and insensitive to Jud Fry, the only really interesting critter in the entire show. We can all be grateful for the formidably menacing performance of Andrew Varela, as that misunderstood rattlesnake with a passion for Laurie and French postcards. Varela's singing of Jud's solo aria "Lonely Room" was outstanding and helped to give significant heft to this musical's only truly flesh and blood character.

Although I was disappointed when Aunt Eller didn't kick up her heels over her head (as did the inimitable Charlotte Greenwood in the 1955 film version), it can be reported that Louisa Flaningham provided us with enough facial contortions to churn up the dancing dust beneath those friendliest of feudin' farmers and cowmen. The energy that Brian Sears expends as Will Parker is a plus. However, it is supposed to be fun to watch him give the rush act to that flighty slut Ado Annie which it nfortunately isn't because Ado Annie, as played by Megan Sikora, has an unbearably shrill voice. Considering the options he had from among the other farm-raised eligible, most of whom look as if they had been around the smoke house once too often, he understandably is still inclined to say "yes" to this man-hungry gal who ". . . cain't say no." But, when will the time come when we will be spared a squealing soubrette? Among the supporting cast, Jonathan Brody appeared to be having the most fun with his role as Ali Hakim, the slyly amorous traveling peddler.

Peggy Hickey's choreography features a notably bawdy version of the famous "Out of My Dream" ballet sequence without making it memorable. In the other principal dance numbers, "Kansas City" and "The Farmer and the Cowman" Hickey rightly emphasizes agility and virility, but without much more than might be considered obligatory. Designer Anthony Ward provided both the "purdy" fresh-from-the-farm costumes and the settings.

In 2002, and in marked contrast to this more tradition-rooted production, Broadway imported the Royal National Theatre's re-envisioned version of Oklahoma! under the direction of Trevor Nunn and with choreography by Susan Stroman who brought a tough visceral edge to the dances (originally created by the legendary Agnes DeMille.) In that production, we were given a glimpse of a more deeply complex relationship between the less than perfect pair of lovers. There was also a more psychologically dense undercurrent in the story that deals with misfits, foreigners, and a community's fear of social progress. (CurtainUp's review of that production).

Perhaps we shouldn't have expected more from Brennan's direction. He understandably avoids the Nunn-Stroman perspective, but his thrust is regrettably more regressive rather than progressive. But, no matter what is emphasized or not, Oklahoma! is a revered entertainment barely encumbered by its simple plot or by the fact that it takes place in a wide-open undisciplined territory that was about to become a state. Perhaps, even more than in 1943 or even in 2002, we can see this production as an opportunity to emphasize a people's need to believe in their country's future and by seeking an end to the fighting between "us" and "them." Why is it so difficult to see that this is all we need to bring us into a new era?

  By Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein (book and lyrics)
  Directed by James Brennan

Cast:(in order of appearance): Louisa Flaningam (Aunt Eller),Adam Monley (Curly), Brynn O'malley (Laurey), Joseph Kolinski (Ike Skidmore), tephen Carrasco (Slim), Daniel Bogart (Cord Elam), Brian Sears (Will Parker), Andrew Varela (Jud Fry), Megan Sikora (Ado Annie), Jonathan Brody (All Hakim), Kiira Schmidt (Gertie Cummings), John Jellison (Andrew Carnes), Sabra Lewis (Dream Laurey), Kyle Vaughn (Dream Curly). Ensemble: Ashely Adamek J. David Anderson Daniel Bogart
Scenic and Costume Design: Anthony Ward
  Lighting Design: F. Mitchell Dana
  Sound Design: Randy Hansen
  Musical Director: Tom Helm
  Choreographer: Peggy Hickey
  Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes including intermission
  Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ. (973) 379 – 4343
  Tickets ($25 - $92) Student rush tickets are $20
  Performances: Wednesdays at 7:30 PM, Thursdays at 2 PM & 7:30 PM, Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 2 PM & 8 PM, and Sundays 2 PM & 7:30 PM.
  Opened Sunday 09/21/08 Ends 10/19/08
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 09/21/08
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin' /Curly
  • The Surrey With The Fringe On Top / Curly, Laurey, Aunt Eller
  • Kansas City/ Will, Aunt Eller and the Boys
  • / Cain't Say No! /Ado Annie
  • Many A New Day/ Laurey and the Girls
  • It's A Scandal! It's A Outrage! / Hakim and the Boys
  • People Will Say We're In Love /Curly and Laurey
  • Pore Jud Is Daid /Curly and Jud
  • Lonely Room / Jud
  • Out of My Dreams - Ballet / Laurey, Girls, Dream Figures
Act Two
  • The Farmer and The Cowman/ Carnes, Aunt Eller, Curly, Will, Ado Annie, Slim and Ensemble
  • All Er Nothin' / Ado Annie and Will
  • People Will Say We're In Love (Reprise) /Curly and Laurey
  • Oklahoma / Curly, Laurey, Aunt Eller, and Company
  • Finale Ultimo / Full Company

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