Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! is OK--and much better than that, actually--as long as you don't insist that it's anything more than tuneful escapism. Taken at face value, as a mostly comic tale of two pairs of independent, happily bickering frontier lovers who must overcome their pride and contrariness, not to mention a couple of antagonists on the sidelines, it's wonderful entertainment--three parts William Shakespeare, two parts Jane Austen, one part Stephen Austin.
Entertainment is certainly what you get in an unpretentious, well-cast production by the University of Arizona's Arizona Repertory Theatre. The company approaches the show on its own terms, plays it for laughs without parody, and delivers a satisfying if long evening of simple fun, utterly free of provocative subtexts.
Oklahoma!--the show itself, not this production--is a huge disappointment only when judged by the standards claimed by its own partisans. It supposedly revolutionized the Broadway musical in 1943 and stood for all that is true and good about America. Yes, the songs and production numbers were more organically connected to the characters and plot than had been the norm. But it's also a show with lots of problems.
Richard Rodgers was an exceptional Broadway composer. If his individual songs didn't quite match the rhythmic verve and harmonic sophistication of those by, for example, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, they came very close. And Rodgers developed a uniquely broad, sweeping, symphonic style that provided coherence through the entire course of a show. And he was capable of some arresting surprises: the snakey, chromatic melody of "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'"; the unexpected harmonic progression under the second phrase of "Pore Jud Is Daid."
His one big problem was middlebrow lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, whose work lacked the sophistication of expression and wordplay of Rodgers' original collaborator, Lorenz Hart, to say nothing of Ira Gershwin or Adolph Green and Betty Comden. Hammerstein's cornpone claptrap disfigured Rodgers' music for the next 17 years. As an SAT item might put it, Hammerstein is to Rodgers as albatross is to neck.
But the public loved this stuff, and the more popular it became, the more Broadway chroniclers and journalists insisted that it must be Meaningful. Dramaturg Judith Sebesta's notes in the UA program rightly point out that Oklahoma! was a valuable World War II morale booster, but she is surprisingly sanguine about the point that Rodgers and Hammerstein "offered a look backward at the spirit that made us America ... painting a musical picture of optimism that was sorely needed." She goes on to quote Ethan Mordden's observation that the show is about how Americans "learn the arts of compromise and tolerance in order to deserve the liberty that democracy fosters."
Sure, Oklahoma!'s 1907 farmers and ranchers learn to coexist in the name of imminent statehood. But what about all those Native Americans in the region who'd been either killed off or rounded up onto reservations to make room for American expansion? Granted, the Five Civilized Tribes and the Cherokee have fared better politically than their counterparts elsewhere, but does their treatment exemplify compromise and tolerance?
Furthermore, within 30 years of this show's action, Oklahoma would be a dustbowl and these characters would be living in miserable California shantytowns. This would have been a painfully fresh memory in 1943, but aside from Aunt Eller's one little remark about the need for fortitude, there's absolutely no hint that these characters could do anything but live happily ever after. If Rodgers and Hammerstein and their producers had really wanted to use Oklahoma history to reflect the American experience, they would have adapted The Grapes of Wrath. But that would have been too depressing, particularly any effort to turn Henry Fonda into a song-and-dance man.
So don't try to intellectualize this show. Arizona Repertory Theatre doesn't. It's a straightforward version that believes in the story and music, and conveys it all with a welcome lightness. As a student production, not every member of the ensemble fits perfectly into the whole, but each major role is filled well.
Unfortunately, Sean Zimmerman's Curly ambles onstage dressed just like Howdy Doody; there's not a single callus on this cowpoke, which is fine in terms of his voice. With his lyrical, measured delivery, Zimmerman proves you don't have to belt out a song to seem manly. He has an endearing stage presence, too. As his love interest, Laurey, Lisa Sproul seems like she'd be a bit more comfortable as a Gilbert and Sullivan heroine, but she's a sweet singer who provides good chemistry in her scenes with Zimmerman.
Matt Bailey is a confident, limber and lively Will Parker, and his rendition of "Kansas City" with the male ensemble is one of the show's highlights. (Agnes de Mille's original choreography gets a bit of tweaking in this production, but there's no overcoming de Mille's dreary routines for the women, the incongruity of her stock ballet gestures in the dream sequence, or the fact that she basically recycled the moves in "Kansas City" from the previous year's Rodeo.) Will's erstwhile girlfriend, Ado Annie, is wonderfully played by Julia Marie Tilley like a lab mouse dosed up with caffeine and pheromones, running through a maze of men.
Jonathan Brian Furedy brings a gentle nature and expert comic timing to the potentially offensive role of Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler who spends most of his time ducking shotgun weddings. And Benjamin Crawford is an intimidating but complex hulking presence as bad-guy Jud Fry.
Now, if you insist on making Oklahoma! relevant to the American experience, howzabout this exegesis: It's the story of how independent spirits (ranchers) are persuaded to comply with dull, safe sociability (farmers) in the name of patriotism (statehood), while those who advocate sexual freedom and self-determination (Ado Annie) are brought under the control of conservative society, and a shady, opportunistic, roguish Middle Easterner (Ali Hakim) is forced at gunpoint to comply with community standards. Meanwhile, the lone dissident-outsider (Jud), reviled by defenders of the status quo, resorts to desperate measures and is made to fall upon his own blade. This alarming development is quickly and laughingly brushed off in a mockery of American jurisprudence, immediately after which everyone is distracted by a big production number.
Now, that's a show that resonates with contemporary America.