Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Faulkner: "Oklahoma"

"Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'", the opening number of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1943 multi-award winning musical Oklahoma!, establishes Blake Mitchell as a rising talent in the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre production.

With his boyish good looks, an engaging smile, an aw-shucks attitude matching his strong singing voice, an ability to deliver old-fashioned dialogue credibly, and to connect truthfully with virtually all the ensemble actors and generously share the stage with them, keeps audiences riveted to his character Curly in his innocent attempts to woo the beautiful but aloof Laurey [Hanah Darrough] away from rival suitor Judd [Joshua S. Fullman] against a 1906 backdrop of the Oklahoma Territory on the brink of Statehood.

Statehood is brought up a few times in the script, but doesn't hold a prominent position for our interests; rather, a lighthearted (everything's up to date in) "Kansas City" shows the advances of a growing urban era against the unsophisticated rural landscape; and a perennial feud between "The Farmer and the Cowman" insists in an upbeat way that they actually can be friends. Even the Persian (cf. Iranian) peddler Ali Hakem [Tony Davison] is accepted by the community, if only as an intriguing outsider and not a threat to the community.

So, it is the love stories that are projected front and center. Curly and Laurey are the "innocents" here, as they deny their obvious attraction to each other in "People Will Say We're in Love", Mr. Mitchell's braggadocio countered by Ms. Darrough's naive posturing. Laurey's Aunt Eller [Rhonda Cattley] is the stalwart voice of reason here, as she gently advises them to come to grips with their romance.

In contrast, Will Parker [Hunter Lee Smith] and Ado Annie [Alex Rikerd] are more comic and worldly, though similarly confused by their emotions. Mr. Smith shows Will's ineptitude in holding on to the $50 that he needs to win the hand of Ado Annie and get the approval of her gun-toting father Andrew [Michael DiLaura], and Ms. Rikerd delights in the contradictions of commitment in "I Cain't Say No"; but together, the ultimatum of "All Er Nuthin" sets them on the right track.

The love stories come to a head at the local picnic where the men bid on picnic hampers to win a date with the women who made them. When Judd outbids Curly -- after their rivalry is made more potent when Curly visits Judd's room and attempts to change him in "Poor Judd is Daid" -- the fight is on to the finish, with catastrophic results that are saved in a quick "trial" that clears Curly of murder and allows his marriage to Laurey to bring a happy ending.

As one of the earliest American musicals to fully integrate song lyrics into plot and character development, and to fuse dance as another integral element of the overall design, director Angela Dickson and musical director Marilyn Swears guide their 31-member ensemble through their paces. Ever cognizant of serving the community, and offering opportunities to many of its constituencies, it is a mixed-bag of talent on stage, with principal roles going to veteran actors, and minor roles in the ensemble filled out be younger less-experienced players.

For an old fashioned plot, delightful characters, iconic music, and a touch of nostalgia, Oklahoma! is a fine Summer offering from Faulkner.