You’re doing fine, ‘Oklahoma!’ at Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville

By John Dwyer

“Oklahoma!” was the first-born child of a marriage that many say was like no other in the history of the American musical theater. If you google “the golden age of musical theater,” the time span is from the 1940s to the 1960s, which coincides with the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein, from “Oklahoma!” to “Sound of Music.”

“Oklahoma!” was groundbreaking, and any revival of it is worth noting, since if it is a good production, it is a must-see for the musical theater lover. It became a huge success when it opened in 1943 due to its wonderful story with gorgeous music and an innovative ballet sequence. It was about the American spirit and wholesomeness and love and goodness. Just what America needed in the middle of World War II.

The title song, though about one state, filled in for what everyone felt about America. Its resounding and exciting melody and lyrics are among the most rousing ones you will ever hear. “You know you belong to the land and the land you belong to is grand!”

The story of “Oklahoma!” is based on Lynn Riggs’s play from 1931 called “Green Grow the Lilacs,” and is about the evolving love of the cowhand Curly McLain (Harrison Pharamond) for the farmer’s daughter, Laurey Williams (Kristen VonWachenfeldt). When we first encounter them, they are just discovering their feeling for each other. When Curly shows up at Laurey’s house under the watchful eye of sassy Aunt Eller (Joan Hoffman), they are very hesitant to show that they are interested in each other. But it is evident to anyone looking, including Aunt Eller, that they are.

A box social dance is coming up that night, where the ladies of the town are auctioning off box lunches that they prepared. When you win the lunch, you also win the opportunity to eat that lunch with the lady who prepared it. Curly wants to take Laurey, but he waited to the very last minute to ask her. She feels slighted by that and says no. She also has another suitor in farm hand Jud Fry (Karl Wiegand), a dark, complex character. He is quiet and moody and obsessed with Laurey. The dynamic between the three is the basis of the drama. A secondary romantic story line is between Ado Annie Carnes (Jaimie Geddes) and her cowboy boyfriend Will Parker (Matt Robertson). She, also has another love interest in Ali Hakim (Rhett Commodaro), a Persian peddler. Ado Annie is in love with love and can’t decide between Will or Ali, and that tale is the second story line.

The 32-person cast is under the direction of Michael Moeller, who has delighted many onstage at Music Mountain in shows such as “The Producers” and “Nunsense.” Now, in directing “Oklahoma,” Music Mountain Theater subscribers know he is an excellent and creative director, as well. What was especially impressive were “The Dream Ballet” and the Curly and Jud fight sequence. Kudos, as well, to choreographer Deven Byrnes for her great work. During those sequences, the lighting, setting and choreography come together perfectly. Too often the ballet drags on but, in this case, it keeps you on the tips of your toes and you are drawn into the story. The fight scene usually is done with no special effects or lighting. This production has been more creative. With darkened lighting and deep red hues, the two men are fighting it out on Curley and Laurey’s wedding night. With a shirtless Curly and in slow motion, it becomes more visceral and more primal.

For those who saw Harrison Pharamond as Danny in “Grease,” there was assurance that he would be wonderful as Curly in “Oklahoma.” Pharamond has a naturalness onstage that serves him well as the charming, easy-going Curly. His appeal is that he doesn’t perform as much as he just is. His Curly listens, reacts. Actor and role are seamless. Where Pharamond begins and Curly ends cannot be seen and that is, of course, as it should be. Kristen VonWachenfeldt is equally natural as Laurey. Their courtship is really what the show is all about, and this production is blessed with two fine actors who are able to make it all believable. The singing of the leads is excellent. “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,””The Surrey with a Fringe on Top,””Many a New Day,” and “People Will Say We’re in Love” have never sounded better. But, again, it is their acting that make the music tell the story and that is what brings their Curly and Laurey over the finish line. People do not just say they’re in love, they seem in love.

Karl Wiegand makes Jud Fry simultaneously sensitive, but angry. His Paul in “A Chorus Line” was disarmingly honest. His Jud is impressive, as well. He also is a very good dancer.

The love triangle of Ado Annie, Will Parker and Ali Hakim showcases the talents of resident company members Jaimie Geddes, Matthew Robertson and Rhett Commodaro, respectively. Geddes continues to amaze as a triple threat performer. Her Ado Annie is broadly played, which emphasizes the comedy in the role. The audience was obviously appreciative. My preference, though, would be to bring it in and be a little more introspective to make her more emotionally identifiable. The audience, regardless, loves Ado Annie and that is a tribute to Geddes’ craft. Mathew Robertson’s amiable Will Parker lassos the audience and holds them captive to his wide grinning charm. Commodaro sells us on his role as peddler Ali Hakim, and we gladly buy it.

Joan Hoffman is an endearing Aunt Eller, and Roger Madding is recognizable as Andrew Carnes, the beleaguered, hardworking farmer that only wants the best for his daughter, Ado Annie. Partially recognizable because he seems like Kevin Costner, and that is a compliment. He totally makes the most of his role.

Kudos to Laurey (Kristen VonWachenfeldt) and the Fortune Telling Girls for a beautifully sung “Out of My Dreams,” which is one of the most beautiful songs of the Rodgers and Hammerstein oeuvre.

As an aside, Music Mountain Theatre continues to put out quality product show after show. They also have a teaching arm that obviously is working as their shows are filled with young local actors who are amazing. They need funding and I would hope that people who see this show or read this review realize their value. This value is shown in their productions and a larger value to the community, in general. This is a show that I would have loved to have seen a full orchestra but there are limits to a young company’s budget. We are blessed to live in a community that has a rich theater history and is quite prosperous. Within the next few months, many will be paying their corporate taxes. Consider giving to this very worthwhile nonprofit group that is doing so much to uplift the community and give a future to our area’s rich theatrical history.

“Oklahoma!” continues through Aug. 19, and tickets can be purchased online.

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