The Open Air Theatre hosts a production of the rootin’-tootin’ classic.

By: Stuart Duncan
   The production of Oklahoma! at the Open Air Theatre in Washington Crossing State Park may well be the finest staging in the 41-year-old summer series. It has superb singing, strong acting and inspired direction, both on stage and in the pit, and inventive choreography handled smoothly by a large, energetic and talented ensemble.
   When Oklahoma! opened on the last day of March 1943, it helped change the whole concept of musical theater in New York. The show is credited with a great many "firsts" — the first musical to tell a serious story, the first musical to introduce ballet and the first musical to receive recognition as a literary drama.
   All of the "firsts" are only half-true: Oklahoma! was certainly not the first serious musical on Broadway. Show Boat, which presented the subject of separation, bittersweet romance and miscegenation, beat it by 16 years. The critics felt it was serious, however, because a man was killed on stage.
   Agnes de Mille’s choreography was indeed developed from her work on Aaron Copeland’s Rodeo, but Vera Zorina performed ballets in musicals in the 1930s — the most notable being Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, in which she danced with Ray Bolger in "On Your Toes" in 1936.
   And while it is true that several members of the Critics’ Circle voted Oklahoma! as the best drama of the year and the Pulitzer Committee did award a special citation to the show, neither group awarded a prize for drama that year. By the way, Of Thee I Sing did win a Pulitzer in 1931, not for a musical, but for a drama.
   The show almost didn’t make it to Broadway. Backers were reluctant to invest in the production for a number of reasons: the musical was based on Lynn Rigg’s play Green Grow the Lilacs, which had not been a popular work. Oscar Hammerstein had not had a hit since the 1930s (remember, he wrote Show Boat) and he was teamed with Richard Rodgers, composing for the first time without Lorenz Hart.
   Moreover, The Theatre Guild, producers of the piece, was in financial trouble and the cast contained no proven stars. Agnes de Mille had never choreographed a musical previously. And director Rouben Mamoulian may have directed Porgy and Bess, but that show lost money.
   One producer told The Guild that the show had little chance to succeed on Broadway because it was too clean and had no bawdy jokes or striptease girls. The chorus girls did not appear until the first act had run almost 45 minutes. The old joke insisted that the average businessman could tell whether he would or would not like a musical comedy before the curtain was halfway up.
   Much later A Chorus Line would use this joke as the basis for its opening number. Remember how the curtain goes up only halfway to reveal a whole line of dancing bare legs?
   On that opening night in 1943, there were empty seats in the theater. By intermission, however, everyone knew it was a hit, although it is doubtful anyone realized Oklahoma! would break the record for consecutive performances of a musical. And fewer yet would have been able to name the record-holder (Chu-Chu-Chow in London during World War I). One further tidbit: The exclamation point had been added to the title only days before the official opening.
   The park production is under the auspices of Stars in the Park, a group founded a half-dozen years ago by Mary Liz Ivins and Diane Wargo with the specific mission to stage productions that combined veterans and "newcomers" at the Open Air Theatre. The current show has been directed and choreographed by Ms. Wargo — Ms. Ivins may well be too busy as the new principal of Notre Dame High School in Lawrence. Ms. Wargo also plays Ado Annie, the role Celeste Holm created six decades ago.
   The cast is led by William Pessel as Curly and Melanie Snyder as Laurey, and you will have to wait a long time to see such a perfectly matched pair. Both sing superbly, making it look easy. But both are fine actors as well, and therefore able to suggest the nuances often left untouched in the script.
   The veteran Fred Gropper (his eighth time in a park presentation) has a delicious time as Will Parker. Marty Berrien plays Ali Hakim with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. Steve Gallagher, on the other hand, is making his debut as Jud Fry and is outstanding. In particular, the "smokehouse scene" in Act I is both moving and scary, an elegant combination.
   M. Kitty Getlik is a memorable Aunt Eller; Jay Fisher an irresistible Gertie Cummings, with a giggle that may haunt you. And Diane Wargo is a wonderful Ado Annie — just the kind of girl a peddler looks for as the day comes to a close.
   The ensemble numbers are the best in the park in years. In one the dancers (Jacqui Mihalik, Chelsea Wargo, Candace Climelewski, Kathleen Rigby, Samantha Otto, Barb Derflein, Brenna Pancza, Emily O’Sullivan, Heather Clano and Eric Carsia) pass around a hat faultlessly. In the famous dream sequence, they use chairs inventively while the soloists (Ms. Mihalik and Mr. Carsia) plunge the tale into nightmare territory.
   Conductor James Capes leads musical director Nancy Snyder at the keyboard and 22 others in the pit brilliantly. Ms. Snyder also designed the set — unfussy, easily and quickly dressed when needed.
   Oh, and one other thing: when Hollywood made the movie, the producers filmed it all in Kansas — something about Oklahoma not looking just right. Just goes to show you.
Oklahoma! continues at the Open Air Theatre, Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville, through Aug. 28. Performances: Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m. Tickets cost $8-$10, $4-$5 children. For information, call (609) 737-1826.