• U.S.

Theater: A-yip-i-o-ee-ay!

3 minute read
T.E. Kalem


Music by Richard Rodgers

Book and Lyrics by Oscar

Hammerstein II

Choreography by Agnes De Mille

There is no need to venture to lands and cities of ancient civilizations in order to indulge in an archaeological dig. Broadway will suffice. For the past three or four years, month has scarcely followed month without the unearthing of some hit play or musical of the past. Some fare well; some do badly. The chances are that Oklahoma!, at Broadway’s Palace Theater, will be a hit. Its endearing score is in destructible, and the new production is finely cast and admirably polished.

The fact remains that Oklahoma! is as anachronistic as the surrey with the fringe on top. More than any other theater form, the musical mirrors the social milieu in which it is born. This show’s ostensible locale and time span are Indian territory, now Oklahoma, just before statehood. But its real dateline is U.S.A., 1943. It exudes robust confidence, the abiding force of the individual will, and a subliminal, but immutable, determination to defeat the Nazis and the Japanese.

“Ev’rything’s goin’ my way”: so go the lyrics. What nook or dell of the U.S.A. in the shadow of the 1980s echoes them? Doubt and the rage of impotence stalk the land. People worry about whether they can gas up to cross a state, let alone found one. With three trusty assistants —his horse, his saddle and his gun—the cowboy hero of Oklahoma!, Curly (Laurence Guittard), is his own man. Where is the man who would dare or would be permitted to carve out his personal destiny that way today? There is a winning comic figure in Oklahoma!, a lustful Persian peddler (Bruce Adler) who is the butt of much joshing and a shotgun wedding. Corrosive irony! The Persians of our day hold Americans hostages at the butt end of their rifles.

Revivalitis is symptomatic of anemic creative initiative, always exempting Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim. The response of playgoers is credited to nostalgia. Sheer escapism seems more like it.

Oklahoma! is nothing if not escapist. The creaky book centers on true love be tween Curly, a bold man, and Laurey (Christine Andreas), a spirited maiden, aided by an earthy matchmaker, Aunt Eller (Mary Wickes). They make it real, even when the dialogue resembles subtitles from a silent movie. As in the silents, there is a villain, Jud, played by Martin Vidnovic, who brings to a thankless role a Freudian depth of characterization and a richly textured voice.

The dances bear the lean, angular, unmistakable signature of Agnes De Mille. Some of them are rodeo-hoydenish and others are balletically romantic. The songs, of course, are a Comstock lode of golden oldies from People Will Say We’re in Love to Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin ‘. You won’t just be humming these tunes as you leave the theater. You will hum them for the rest of your life.

­T.E. Kalem

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