It's hard to think of a musical more ideally suited to the vast Muny stage than Oklahoma! Richard Rodgers, who composed the seminal score, wrote in his autobiography that "everything in the [original Broadway] production was made to conform to the simple open-air spirit of the story." If there's anything the Muny has in abundance, it's open air.
Of course with open air comes the possibility for inclement weather. Monday's season-opening performance was a stop-and-start affair that dragged on into the late night. The periodic pauses which were not so much due to heavy rain as they were a mopping-up action to protect the dancers from a steady drizzle gave one time to think about the unique place Oklahoma! occupies in the canon of American musical theater.
When the show debuted in 1943, it quite simply changed everything. The snappy musicals that preceded it earlier that season were star vehicles for the likes of Ethel Merman, Eddie Cantor and Danny Kaye all of them larger-than-life entertainers. Now here was a musical play that transformed the role of the singing and dancing choruses. Songs were integrated into the action. The plot itself is inconsequential: Which of two cowboys will squire a flirty farm girl to a box social? But even that flimsy story line provides enough of a framework upon which to hang one of the most melodic scores in the American theater ("Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top"), with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II that evoke a lost innocence.
Sixty-four years and countless imitations later, Oklahoma! is still a rule-breaking original, sometimes maddeningly so. The opening scene tends to run just short of forever. Act One ends with a dream ballet in which the leading man is murdered. Act Two builds to a real death. This is extremely tricky material for musical comedy.
The current Muny production (its tenth staging of Oklahoma! though its first in nearly a decade) is best summarized in the lyrics for the title song: "Oklahoma, O.K." This Oklahoma! is OK, but certainly not worthy of its exclamation point. A show that once defined newness comes off same old, same old. James Clow brings a sturdy baritone to Curly, and Bruce Adler savors the bawdy humor in Ali Hakim, the philandering peddler. But too many other performers have been cast from the Paul Blake Rolodex Repertory Company, more out of friendship than because they're the best choices for these roles. Then Muny executive producer Blake, who also directs this show, was content to let his actors deliver unexceptional summer-stock performances.
The scenic design by Steve Gilliam, simple though it is, establishes the play's world as unreal. Laurey's farmhouse is indistinguishable from Dorothy's farmhouse in The Wizard of Oz. It's as if little thought has been given as to how to tell this story visually. On the other hand, the lighting design by F. Mitchell Dana seems sharper and more nuanced than in recent years. Dana has a keen understanding of the evening's demands.
Every time the show resumed after a rain break, a few more people were missing from their seats. By the start of Act Two, I was the only person remaining in my row. It's not that the weather scared them off. To the contrary, the evening turned out to be delightful, with a steady cool breeze caressing the onstage trees. The viewers didn't return because nothing that was happening onstage was persuasive enough to compel them to return. Oklahoma! is a profoundly important American musical. But you can't engage out a viewer out of obligation. If a production doesn't unlock this show's soul and give us people to care about, in 2007 Oklahoma! will come across as old-fashioned and outdated. To borrow from Richard Rodgers, what we get here is the open air without the spirit.