Mad River Union
EUREKA – What could be more American on Inauguration weekend than launching a production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!? The classic musical – a staple of amateur theatricals – tells the story of two love triangles set against a backdrop of deep, sometimes violent, social division (farmers vs. cowmen) and peppered with traditionally American songs.
Right away, you bite into a big gooey chunk of chocolate, Jordan Dobbins’ clear and assured voice declaring “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow!” from the back of the house. By the time he gets to the stage, you realize that Dobbins, all gangly charm and soulful eyes, is Curly McLain. It does promise to be a beautiful morning. Like Aunt Eller (charmingly played by Laura Rose), we wish we could marry him ourselves. Barring that, we wish Laurey Williams would just say yes right away.
But feisty heroine Laurey, played by the always luminous Jo Kuzelka, has to be contrary, which is also OK, cuz that means we get to hear more from her. Once again, Kuzelka brings to the stage warmth, wryness, charm and the finest set of pipes in the county. Together, Kuzelka and Dobbins dominate this show, and they're a real treat.
But it turns out to be a mixed bag, and when you expect some more chocolate chip, here’s an oatmeal raisin cookie. Unexpected, but still good and wholesome.
As the musical unfolds, we encounter farmhand Jud Fry, ably played by Jonathan Moreno with the type of seething heavy-jawed menace that Joaquin Phoenix has made so lovable. Jessi Shieman delivers a convincingly sly Ado Annie Carnes and Wesley Fuller a sweetly bumbling Will Parker. Ruben Botello, in the role of smarmy womanizing Persian peddler Ali Hakim, wisely chose a portrayal that’s more New York con artist than ethnic caricature. Go east, young man – you could be president some day!
Minimalism well served this production. Set design was kept blessedly simple, as was lighting. The musical numbers were ably accompanied by Wally Cooper on piano.
But then, consider costume design – the women wore long shirts and some really very nicely fitted blouses, totally period-appropriate. For the men – Stetson hats, Western shirts, blue jeans and boots – you can’t go wrong. Until, noticeably in the dance number “Kansas City,” in which the audience will be looking at the footwork, we got boots, boots, boots, boots, Nikes, boots. It’s a jarring anachronism, a sad lack of attention to detail.
Ever bitten into a cookie and wound up with something between your molars – a small rock maybe – that you don’t bite down, but just swallow anyway?
This particular evening, Oklahoma! had some of that grit, with flubbed lines, missed cues, pitchy singing, careening spotlights, lagging tempos, clunky set changes, trod-on toes and an oddly long and uncomfortable interval in the second act in which nothing happened and no one was onstage. It was a pretty emotional day in America, and maybe Oklahoma! was feeling it too.
But it’s Oklahoma!, and you cain’t he’p but want it to be great ag'in. In the words of wise Aunt Eller, “Oh, lots of things happen to folks. Sickness, er bein' pore and hungry even – bein' old and afeared to die. That’s the way it is – cradle to grave. And you can stand it. They's one way. You gotta be hearty, you got to be. You cain't deserve the sweet and tender in life less'n you’re tough.”
And that sweetness is still there, even among the grit.
Oklahoma! runs at Northcoast Rep through Feb. 18. (707) 442-NCRT (6278), ncrt.net