Review - Oklahoma! at Paper Mill: Big and Boisterous Again

How exactly does Curly know the height of an elephant's eye?

I don't mean to doubt the intelligence or inquisitiveness of the guy, but if I asked a pre-statehood Oklahoma cowboy how high the corn has grown, the first response I'd expect wouldn't be a comparison to the height of a proboscidea native to Africa and Asia. Perhaps he found a picture book in some public library, or maybe that famous Thomas Edison film of the electrocution of Topsy, the Coney Island elephant, had made its way to a local picture house.

In any case, if your only exposure to a live, professional performance of Oklahoma! is Trevor Nunn's re-written, introspective and almost completely misguided mess that played Broadway several seasons back, you seriously owe it to yourself, and especially to Rodgers and Hammerstein, to get yourself out to The Paper Mill, where they know that Oklahoma! is a big boisterous musical drama (with a lot of great comedy) that smacks of the American pioneering spirit.

If the main plot of whether the headstrong farmer Laurey will go to the box social with the arrogant cowboy Curly or her loner hired hand Jud doesn't seem like the most scintillating story on its surface, Hammerstein's superb book - which contains several lengthy scenes bursting with tense drama and true hilarity - keeps us fully aware of the dark, violent culture nurtured beneath the homespun simplicity. And if its moral lesson, "I don't say I'm no better than anybody else but I'll be damned if I ain't just as good," doesn't exactly have the refined eloquence of Thomas Jefferson, it is still, as John Adams might have put it, "a masterful expression of the American mind."

Director James Brennan's production spares us any newfangled takes on the 65-year-old musical. I noticed some minor cuts in the book here and there (though slicing down the overture to a quick prelude is a major one and should not have been done) but he simply provides a good, straightforward, extremely enjoyable mounting of a piece that works fine just as it is.

Adam Monley and Brynn O'Malley not only sing beautifully as lovers Curly and Laurey but also do very well in Hammerstein's more dramatic moments; particularly in O'Malley's monologue where she describes what her character wishes for in life, hinting at sexual longing that she can't - or won't - express. Andrew Varela gives the most normal performance of Jud Frey I've ever seen. While the role is traditionally played as a dangerous menace or as a man who may have some kind of mental disability, Varela's Jud is just a regular guy who, living in a violent culture as it is, crosses over the line of acceptable behavior when he can't win the girl he loves. His acting and singing of "Lonely Room," the musical's major dramatic soliloquy, is first rate and fully empathetic.

Though Ado Annie, the boy-crazy gal who "cain't say no" to any affection-starved lad, is one of musical theatre's most famous comic roles, Megan Sikora's cartoon interpretation seems more suited for a production of Li'l Abner. Her high-pitched squeak of a voice gets plenty of laughs on its own, especially when she quickly switches to a low growl, but it also gets in the way of understanding the jokes that are already in the book and lyrics. It's a good performance, but one that seems out of place compared with the others. Brian Sears' dumb, but sincere Will Parker (snazzily danced, I should say) and Jonathan Brody's slick delivery of some of the book's funniest lines, as peddler Ali Hakim, are more on the mark. Louise Flaningam as the hearty Aunt Eller tends to get a little muggy at times but does nicely when sincerity is called for.

Peggy Hickey's lively choreography, a traditional mix of ballet, two-steppen' and square dancin', reaches its peak during a terrific challenge dance section of "The Farmer and the Cowman." She meets the dramatic challenges of Laurey's dream ballet very nicely, though I could have done without all the loud butt-slapping of the dance hall girls. This is Oklahoma!, not Oh! Calcutta!

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