The Charleston Light Opera Guild premiered its latest staging of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma!” at the Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center Little Theater on Friday evening to a solid crowd that was obviously excited to be part of the show.
At times it seemed like there were as many cheers and cowboy yelps from the audience as there were on stage. From my seat in the middle of the theater, I also saw a number of people gesturing right along with the cast for the title song “Oklahoma!”
I’ve heard about the musical “Oklahoma!” for most of my life and instantly recognized the signature songs from the show: the title song and “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” that opens the show and pops back up from time to time throughout. But this was my first time actually seeing it, so I didn’t know much, if anything about the story.
“Oklahoma!” is essentially a love story as two young people, Laurey (Brynna Horswell) and Curly (Adam J. Campbell), work to decide if they really are in love and how to get together. The counterpoint to their love story is carried off well by Ado Annie (Taylor Shaw) and Will Parker (Austin Alexander Thomas). In their case, cowboy Will is in love with Ado Annie, but she is having fun.
There is a dark element to the show, too, as Jud Fry (Ian Jessee) pursues Laurey and is determined to make her his own. In today’s language, Jud would be a stalker and would set off all sorts of alarms. In 1943, when the show took the stage for the first time, he was just seen as a “rival.” Parts of that storyline can be a bit unsettling — at least through today’s lens.
Generally, though, the show is entertaining. My favorite line from the show, delivered by Aunt Eller (Victoria Casey), is, “I won’t say I’m no better than anybody else, but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good!”
“Oklahoma!” is known for integrating song, story and dance into a singular tale. Up to that point, musicals were a collection of songs, jokes and dancing that only loosely hung together — think vaudeville more than musical. With that in mind, it is easy to see the format in every other musical today. We take it for granted, but in 1943, it was somewhat revolutionary.
For a show like “Oklahoma!” that features a rivalry between farmers and cowboys in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma, I expected country dancing, but was surprised by the inclusion of ballet. There are several segments, including a dream-turned-nightmare scene, that are completely ballet based. The dancers did a terrific job pulling it off. The music is on point, both from the orchestra and the vocalists. In her lead role, Horswell has an operatic voice that carries above the chorus.
This is a huge production with nearly 50 performers and who knows how many people backstage. The staging is relatively simple, but it works. You don’t need intricate sets to take away from the dancing, singing and dialogue on stage.
Be prepared for a long show. From start to finish, it was slightly more than three hours, including a 15-minute intermission. It is three hours well spent, however.
“Oklahoma!” continues at the Little Theater with 7:30 p.m. showings Nov. 15, Nov. 16 and Nov. 22, and 2 p.m. showings Nov. 23 and Nov. 24. Tickets are $25 and $30.