Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!,” the landmark 1943 musical concerning love and statehood circa 1906 in Oklahoma territory based on Lynn Riggs’ 1930 play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” thrives on its engaging romance between a stubborn farm girl and her folksy suitor. Even so, there is another relationship, a truly alluring collaboration, key to the appeal of the Dayton Playhouse’s entertaining if off-kilter presentation.
Late in Act 1, an absolute highpoint, cowboy Curly McClain (an immensely charismatic Jeff Sams) arrives at the pornography-adorned smokehouse of surly ranch hand Jud Fry (an impressive David Hallowren). Both men vow to win the heart of Laurey Williams (Amanda Carter), but Curly particularly knows deep within that Laurey only pines for and intends to be with him. Still, Jud has the upper hand for the time being since Laurey promised to go with him to a box social despite Curly’s bewildered disdain. Under director Brian Sharp’s delicate guidance, the fascinating tug-of-war transpiring here over casual conversation and a few shots of gunfire wonderfully conveys the determination and jealousy fueling Curly and Jud’s inherent friction. In fact, Sams, carefree yet astute, hits all the right marks in an appropriately impromptu fashion while building the morbid gem “Pore Jud is Daid,” a humorously somber portrait of Jud’s demise. Having winningly interpreted Curly’s knack for fantasy in “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” Sams conjures another imaginary premise with colorful nuances freshly heightening the tune, particularly as Hallowren ensures the clueless Jud falls for the silly scenario perhaps due to nothing more than momentary masculine companionship. When Curly leaves the smokehouse, after intimidating Jud to the core with his confident swagger, Jud’s pain as an unloved, detached outcast is powerfully examined by Hallowren in his dynamic rendition of the haunting, underrated “Lonely Room” filled with ample heartache, vengeance and frightening decisiveness.
Sams and Hallowren are a significant pairing primarily because of Carter’s vocal limitations hindering the cohesion she tries very hard to maintain opposite the more vocally firm Sams. Carter is an endearing presence and gives credence to Laurey’s hopeful yearnings, but the score is simply beyond her range, particularly “Many a New Day” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.” As ruthless peddler Ali Hakim, Christopher Delanis (an amusing Hero in the University of Dayton’s recent “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”) is equally uneven, providing an overly meek, tentative and exasperated portrayal absent of salesman-like savvy and go-getting vigor. Even “It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage!,” Ali’s signature tune, falls flat despite cheery backup from the male ensemble.
Nonetheless, this production has its share of strong principals and featured performers. As Aunt Eller, the outstanding Karen Righter provides a wonderfully earthy sparkle, specifically bringing substantive radiance to Eller’s words of wisdom directed to Laurey late in Act 2. Kelli Locker is chock-full of fiery abandon as the hopelessly flirtatious Ado Annie Carnes. Matthew Glenn is a delightfully dimwitted Will Parker. Shawn Hooks is effectively authoritative and sly as Andrew Carnes. Ben Douglas (Ike Skidmore) and Zack Conway (Slim) pleasantly partner as Will’s friends. The absolutely luminous Tiffany Cichanowicz captivates as Dream Laurey in the favorably abridged Dream Ballet, beautifully choreographed by Barbara Pontecorvo.
Notable choreography is also offered by Paige Hanshaw, especially in the rousing “The Farmer and the Cowman.” In-demand scenic designer Chris Newman returns to the Playhouse to create a striking set depicting an authentic homestead essence. Kathleen Carroll supplies fine period costumes. John Falkenbach’s lighting design aptly captures varying moods. Musical director Ron Kindell leads another terrific orchestra.
“Oklahoma!” continues through May 18 at the Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave., Dayton. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Act One: 90 minutes; Act Two: 50 minutes. Tickets are $17 for adults and $15 for seniors and students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 424-8477 or visit online at www.daytonplayhouse.com.
In addition, the Friday, May 16 performance will be “Western Wear Night.” Patrons are encouraged to dress in their favorite farmer or cowboy/cowgirl attire. In addition, two special picnic hampers, containing gift certificates for fried chicken and other picnic delicacies from Benjamin’s Restaurant and sweet treats and coffee from Winans Fine Chocolates and Coffees, will be raffled, as a fundraiser, during all performances and awarded after the closing performance Sunday, May 18. Raffle tickets will be $1 or six for $5.
In related news, the Dayton Playhouse’s 2014 FutureFest of new plays will be held Friday, July 25-Sunday, July 27 at the Playhouse. From a total of 151 submissions across the country, the six finalists are: “Masterwork” and “The Paymaster” by Dayton native M.J. Feely (a previous winner and third playwright to have two plays in final six), “Sugarhill” by Linda Ramsay-Detherage, “The Humanist” by Kuros Charney (previous semi-finalist), “The Killing Jar” by Jennifer Lynne Roberts, and “Wash, Dry, Fold” by Nedra Pezold Roberts (previous semi-finalist). Auditions will be held Sunday, June 1 at 2 p.m. (all plays), Monday, June 2 at 7 p.m. (fully staged plays) and Tuesday, June 3 at 7 p.m. (staged readings). Anyone interested in directing or serving as a member of the production staff should e-mail FutureFest program director Fran Pesch by May 15 at email@example.com. FutureFest weekend passes will go on sale Wednesday, June 11. Single tickets will go on sale Tuesday, July 1. For more information, visit www.daytonplayhouse.com