There is a medical miracle taking place over the course of a few weekends, and it’s happening in Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall. Theater professor Richard Palmer’s production of “Oklahoma!” is remarkable simply because the spirit of the production, so palpably alive and so determined to prove its own vitality, but does so without heart. The youthful exuberance and idealism, and the honesty and clarity of Palmer’s portrayal of America’s rustic past, come through powerfully thanks to the genuine feeling that permeates the production. It’s just difficult to witness a talented group of people diligently setting up a magnificent banquet and then be refused a seat at the table.
First performed in 1943, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s love letter to the American heartland was revolutionary for its integration of songs and plot. Traditionally, songs were incorporated into plays as merry diversions from the story rather than as part of the plot. History aside, at its best the show is an excellent piece of entertainment with the occasional bout of shallow social commentary (the cowpokes’s amazement at the relative modernity of Kansas City being the most blatant), and at its worst a parade of butchered accents and uninspired musical staging. To Palmer’s credit, at no point during the evening could the play have been described by the latter. However, moments which should have propelled the show to its revelatory heights instead stomped on the (many) instances of tremendous fun in this production.
Despite all the delight found in dance professor Denise Damon Wade’s choreography and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s timeless and spritely score — handled well enough by theater professor Gary Green’s orchestra — the linchpin of “Oklahoma’s” emotional arc, the romance of cowboy Curley McClain (Eric Nold ’11) and farm girl Laurey Williams’ (Megan Asano ’14), seems stale. The playful banter blooming into full-blown mutual attraction that usually defines the play is nowhere to be found. To be fair, the banter is there, but it does not harbor the seed of their affair as it should. Laurey and Curly will fall in love — that much is inferred by music alone, but it certainly does not seem like this particular pair is meant to be. Nold’s Curley has little charm to speak of; how he gets away with his impulse-driven schemes is beyond the scope of reasoning. Were it not for the plot determining his success, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this Curley ride out of town on a rail. On the other hand, Asano’s Laurey is genteel and believable, and when she sings “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” her genuine pleasure in finding it such is unquestionable.
Furthermore, the supporting cast admirably disarms most quibbles. Kevin Place ’14, as the vindictive and villainous farmhand Jud Frye, is all scowls and grimaces. Place’s furtive desire for acceptance finally reaches its zenith in his wish to escape his “Lonely Room.” The love triangle between Arabian peddler Ali Hakim (Miles Drawdy ’14), the cowboy Will Parker (Andrew Collie ’11) and farm girl Ado Annie (Nora Ives ’11) is a near-constant source of hijinks and improves upon what could have been an uninteresting subplot. Hakim, who in this production is performed by a white actor, invites an assortment of potential pitfalls, but Drawdy is careful to avoid pure caricature while still having fun with the role. Collie’s infectious glee as the simple and sincere Parker meshes well with Ives, who plays the unintentionally flirtatious Annie with gusto.
A simultaneously minimalistic and vibrant set from theater professor Matthew Allar maintains the outdoorsy atmosphere necessary for a production of this type, while remaining artistically engaging. Theater professor Steve Holliday’s subtle light work is an asset to the play as well. Sunrises, sunsets and all manner of sky in between give the show a greater air of authenticity, and the color spots during solos and duets accentuate the performances and give them an unmistakable aura. The costumes of theater professor Patricia Wesp are in-period and fine enough reproductions, although some pieces of clothing look modern enough to cause distraction.
The spirit of Palmer’s “Oklahoma!” is wild and strong. Staying true to the rip-roaring character of the period while maintaining the sweet innocence of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s material is a difficult balancing act, executed quite capably here. Unfortunately, with the sentimental core of the story seeming so inauthentic, this production is all hat and no cattle. But it’s a very nice hat.
“Oklahoma!” is being performed in PBK from Nov. 18 to 20 at 8 p.m. and on Nov. 21 at 2 p.m.