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Sluggish pacing and uncertain characterizations undermine Oklahoma!

Jeremiah James plays good-guy Curly in this rendition - of an American classic.
  • Jeremiah James plays good-guy Curly in this rendition of an American classic.
As the Wal-Martization of the country continues, with employee unions being attacked, dropping by the wayside, or losing power, it's worthwhile to note that theatrical unions often provide a significant service. This is particularly noticeable when a nonunion production, such as Oklahoma!, now on the boards at Playhouse Square Center, tries to match the expertise of an Actors Equity cast, but can't quite get it done.

Yes, Curly and Laurey are fussin' and flirtin' again, but this pallid adaptation of the Broadway revival directed by Trevor Nunn captures little of the magic of Rodgers and Hammerstein's music, let alone the intriguingly dark subplot involving the menacing presence of farmhand Jud Fry. In a way, Anthony Ward's stage set telegraphs some of the problems, since every scene is played in front of a large backdrop with blue sky above and a supposed land mass below. This brown earth shape, curved like a smile, makes it seem as if all the action takes place at the bottom of a freshly dug landfill.

Although the cast gets points for well-intentioned effort, this production too often slows to a crawl and loses vitality, due to unfocused characterizations and meandering interchanges. As Curly, Jeremiah James has a sporadically authoritative singing voice, but he sits so hard on his scripted hayseedisms ("fer" for "for") that a genuine Oklahoma accent never develops. Indeed, some of his lyrics come out so precisely, they sound almost British -- a basic no-no for any cowpoke. Julie Burdick does better as Laurey, but she also fails to really inhabit the spunky persona of this plainspoken Great Plains gal. At least her singing didn't conjure an image of another country.

Jud is the character that always grounds any performance of Oklahoma!, since his shadowy stalking of Laurey should send a shiver down anyone's spine. Andrew Lebon is plenty big and nasty, but his bass monotone has precious little modulation, and he comes off too much as a semi-petrified Lurch, rather than as a man of passionate and potentially terrifying obsessions. And when Curly and Jud meet in the farmhand's cabin, the slow pacing drains the necessary tension, undercutting the humor of the comical song "Poor Jud Is Dead."

But this version of every high school's favorite class play does have its upside. J. Michael Zygo is full of lively fun as Will Parker, and he twirls a mean lasso in his rendition of "(Everything's Up to Date in) Kansas City." Sorab Wadia also lands some hearty laughs as the Persian peddler and reluctant beau, Ali Hakim. The dance sequences, originally choreographed by Susan Stroman and re-created by Ginger Thatcher, are lyrical. And Jillian Nyhan, substituting in the role of Ado Annie at this performance, kicked up the energy a notch.

It's unfortunate when a touring company can't do justice to one of Broadway's enduring classics. Because you know there are a few people who've probably never seen it before, and they may never realize what an awesome show Oklahoma! really is, when it's performed with maximum spirit, invention, and skill.

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