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Waving Wheat Still Smells Sweet

Oklahoma! Tonight through Saturday on the Loeb mainstage.

By Peter Kaplan

THERE WAS AN ABRUPT TRANSITION in the American musical theater between 1942 and 1943, and the transition was between Hart and Hammerstein. Lorenz Hart's death represented the end of the Depression Era in musicals, the end of lyrics that were fast and mean and bitter, the end of admitting that life was pretty rough for a lot of people who weren't all that equipped to deal with it. During the War one just had to look to see how hellish life was all around the world and what a good deal we had at home.

Before Hart died in 1943, he and Richard Rodgers were writing songs like "I Wish I Were in Love Again" which had lyrics that went:

When love congeals

It soon reveals

The faint aroma of performing seals

The double-crossing of a pair of heels

I wish I were in love again.

Rodgers and Hart's 1940 show Pal Joey about a handsome rodent of a gigolo was their best work and one of the greatest scores written for the theater--witty, melodic and cynical. It's never revived. Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein's first collaboration has been done (one would bet) in most high-school auditoriums, gymnasiums and summer-stock tents in America. It's been done by Guy Lombardo on water and by Fred Zinnemann in Cinemascope. On any given night, its score can be heard in a solid minority of the nation's shower stalls. I myself appeared in a fine 1967 production at South Orange Junior High School. As a member of the Cowboy Chorus who piped, "O.K. Aunt Eller!" and "I bid two bits!" in unison with the rest of the Cowboys, I consider myself especially fit to discuss the production of the show which opened last weekend on the Loeb mainstage.

It's a strange amalgam, this Oklahoma! It's an ambitious production that fiddles with and attempts to broaden the most familiar book in the musical theater, but then realizes it so sloppily that it's hard to remember that it isn't a high school stage. The freshness of the musical comes back at times when this peculiarly doctored version tries to remind its audience just why the play excited audiences who didn't know that musical performers weren't exclusively nocturnal creatures in evening clothes and taps. The conceivers of this Oklahoma! understand just how remarkable it was that a musical addressed itself to the heartland of a growing America, to sunlight, and to countrymen and women whose gerunds didn't always have a final g.

The legend goes that when Oklahoma! left Boston for New York (with the title Away We Go!) one reviewer up here kissed it off writing, "No legs, no jokes, no chance." Andy Cadiff, in his adaptation has stretched those odds, bringing in dialogue from the earlier straight play, Lynn Riggs' Green Grow the Lilacs, from which the musical was shaped. In doing so, he's underlined themes which had been implicitly obvious and undercut the celebrated cohesiveness that had made the show famous. Oklahoma! survives as a sturdy vehicle because all of its components synchronize and drive the show forward. This footnoted version sometimes seems to be just what its creators tried to avoid: a straight play with music.

But indestructible is indestructible. The score is a miracle, and heard from the throats of real actors the songs are new again, as though the Easy Listening arrangements had never stripped them of their ingenuity and warmth. The voices in this production are good, especially Curly's.

Paul Jackel plays Curly and he's everything Curly should be: charming, on-key and curly. His character, like almost everyone in the play, is a little dumb. That's one of the central ingredients to Rodgers and Hammerstein's charm--the commonality of dumbness. Even the psychopathic villain Jud (most terrifyingly and affectingly played by an actor named Jerry Medanic) has his menace diluted by the dopey Frankenstein aspects to his character. Linda Anne Kirwan's Laurey didn't really make clear the sexual coming-out of the girl lead, but one senses that she wasn't directed with the special attention a Laurey needs to make sure that she's a distinct profile.

Bonnie Anne DeLorme as Aunt Eller played her part like a wise old woman of 22 with a Western accent that seemed to be borrowed from a Eugene O'Neill seaplay. William Falk and Patricia Low as Will Parker and Ado Annie both sang and danced with comic talent and lots of energy, but their characters had the depth of colorforms. Laura Jean Esserman as Gertie Cummings read every line as though she were doing an opera without music. Her laugh haunted me through three nights of horrifying dreams. Richard Rosomoff's nut-colored Ali Hakim was very, very funny. It's hard to figure why the Hakim song, "It's a Scandal, It's an Outrage" was cut.

The choruses were superb. Particularly beautiful was the "Many A New Day" number's staging which had the kind of choreography only inspiration provides. It was a lovely moment. One singer especially, Caroline Noel Franklin, injected enough charm and personality into her negligable part to make herself a permanent lesson to anyone who thinks of the lines as back-drops.

The dances in the body of the book part of the show held things up like tentpoles. As for the treacherous ballet, Baryshnikov sleeps tight tonight.

The show can be quite an eyeful, and the stunning sets articulated everything to which this production aspired. The costumes were surprisingly dull. The virtuoso lighting gets cigars all around.

It's a surprise when someone attempts to resurrect a musical so often done as though it were a rare, savorable slightly missing masterpiece. Cadiff's Oklahoma! replaces things that were never gone. No matter how much hamburger helper gets poured into this show the strength of its music and a few good actors will always drive audiences to happy nostalgia for a time they never knew. The one thing that has been genuinely improved here is the end: the show has never closed so benignly or with such a nice nod to nature before.

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