• by Sarah Teach •
Saddle up your horses and clip-clop over yonder to Oklahoma!, where the dancin’ is lively and the gals are purdy. You must cross neither the Sound nor the prairie to get to Oklahoma!, because Theatre Workshop of Nantucket is bringing this distinctly American musical to you.
Based on Lynn Riggs’s 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs, Oklahoma! was first of the many legendary collaborations between Rodgers and Hammerstein. Set in 1906, the story is brimming with the hope and optimism of the early 20th century settlers of the South Central U.S., and really, Americans in general. There’s a reason this musical has been beloved by Americans and performed thousands of times in this country since its 1943 Broadway debut.
The set isn’t elaborately decorated, and it shouldn’t be. As pink sunsets creep across the tawny background, the focus remains on the action. Set designer Eric Schultz gives us a clear blue sky, which lighting designer Sandra Galley transforms to a hazy moonlit evening when the drama speeds up.
Director and choreographer Justin Cerne and musical director Diane Lehman must have taken a cue from Rodgers and Hammerstein in casting singers who could act rather than the reverse. Truly, it is the only way to produce an excellent musical. Who among us has not witnessed a talented actor eke out lyrics in a subpar pitch? The original production of Oklahoma! helped to inspire the creation of the much-needed and now-popular college major musical theatre; and several of Cerne’s actors have degrees in the field. Ted Bushman, who stars as Curly, delivers a flawless performance of the opening piece “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” His versatile vocal range melds beautifully with the voice of soprano Becky Sawicki, who embodies all the spirit and spunk of Laurey, Curley’s darling farm girl. Everyone should have an Aunt Eller in her or his life, and local songstress Polly Miller makes a delightful one. Francesca Gallucci is a flirtatious Ado Annie, whose silliness prompts many of the evening’s laughs. Costume designer Anne Breeding was smart to stuff Ado Annie into a pink corset over a fluffy, flowery dress. Lots of fathers joke about meeting their daughters’ suitors while holding a shotgun; Ado Annie’s father Andrew Carnes actually does it. Elloit Russell plays Andrew with a gruffness that almost strikes a fear in you. Vince Veilleux steps out of his usual hero role and into the carpet-bagging shoes of the fast-talking Persian peddler Ali Hakim. Jason Elliott Brown (who plays Slim) is a fine tenor, and it’s a shame we only get to hear him solo for a moment. Peter Sendelbach is a suitably unkempt villain as the seedy Jud. Note that some theatergoers have a bad habit of booing actors who play antagonists (such as Jud) when the actors take their bows after the show. Don’t be one of them.
Cerne turns up the dance dial with his elaborate, themed choreography. Some productions of Oklahoma! use different actors for the play’s demanding ballet scene, but Cerne tapped into his cast’s athletic talent and taught them to pull it off themselves. The girls’ ethereal dance in the misty orchard begins sweetly, then turns dark as they toss Laurey’s emotions to and fro. Even when the entire 19-person cast is dancing onstage, everyone is aware of their role. This points to effective blocking by the director. Theatre Workshop is fortunate to have welcomed Cerne on board as their new artistic director, succeeding John Shea.
If you’re in the mood for a fabulously entertaining musical that focuses on choreography, then head to Bennett Hall at 62 Centre Street. Oklahoma! plays through August 16. Tickets are $30 at theatreworkshop.com. See website for show times. Running time is two hours and 10 minutes with intermission.