By John Dwyer
From the beginning of the show, with the excellent Lee Damon as Curly singing “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,” this Rodgers and Hammerstein “Oklahoma!” soars ever upward and stays there like a “hawk making lazy circles in the sky.”
Bucks County is as much about theater history as anything else. It was looking outside Oscar Hammerstein’s home, Highland Farms in Doylestown, that he saw that “corn was as high as an elephant’s eye,” though it took him a bit of time to get to that analogy. And due to the artistic bent of the area, the talent that is out there for a local non-profit community theater like Town and Country is so deep that the leads often are as good as anything you would see at an Equity house. That is the case here.
Look, I am coming to this expecting a lot. Lee Damon gave such a memorable performance as Sky Masterson in Music Mountain’s “Guys and Dolls” this year, that I arrived at the theater knowing I would be seeing an engaging performance by Damon. I love it when I am right. He doesn’t just sing his songs, he lives them and that draws you into both song and story, which is exactly what is supposed to happen and too often doesn’t.
So, what about the story? It is the love story of cowboy Curly loving farm girl Laurey (Patricia Curley). Laurey thinks Curly is full of himself, but really does have a hankering for him. She runs the farm with her Aunt Eller (Suzanne Ardite) and a hired farm hand, Jud Fry (Shawn Hudson). Jud also loves Laurey, but Jud has an erratic, dark side that scares her. The crux of the story is who will win Laurey’s hand, though there are other side issues examined, such as the conflict between ranchers and farming. A secondary romance is between cowboy Will Parker (Mark Whitman) and the love of his life, the frisky Ado Annie (Colby Langweiler). His problem is that Annie also likes the traveling merchant, Ali Hakim (Adam Zucal).
The excellence of this cast can not be overstated. Town and Country Players attracts seasoned performers to its stage, and over the last few seasons has garnered the reputation for being an intimate venue to ‘see up-close’ musicals in a new way. The audience has a special treat in being so near the stage. If the director chooses, it can become part of the interaction, but it is regardless due to the proximity of the actors.
When Curly sings “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!,” he looks out into the audience to what is supposed to be the sky, but really is us, and we are pulled in. You almost feel like giving testimony and standing up to say “Amen! Yes it is!
This is the power of this setting.
Patricia Curley is lovely as Laurey. She is sweet and stubborn, sassy but vulnerable and scared at times. She sings like an angel and acts like one, too. Maybe an angel with a little bit of attitude, but that is who Laurey is. There is great chemistry between her Laurey and Damon’s Curly.
Shawn Hudson’s Jud Fry has more depth than what is often given to this character. Jud Fry is an ornery, taciturn cuss and, too often, can seem one dimensional. But his line that when he was sick, Laurey watched after him, explains why he feels the way he does and he maintains some audience sympathy, in spite of being the villain of the piece. Hudson with a shaved head, muscular build and aggressive demeanor brings all the right qualities to make Jud Fry a menacing character.
Mark Whitman as Will Parker and Colby Langweiler as Ado Annie are joys to watch. I have seen Whitman in “The Full Monty” and Langweiler in “Little Women,” and they bring a special excitement to the stage. Whitman’s Will Parker is like an over-energetic, untrained puppy — all wide-eyed innocence, as he continues to make mistakes in courting his sweetheart. In this show, he also brings his roping and lassoing skills. Langweiler’s Ado Annie bemoans and yet takes great pride in her new found figure and sexuality. Her “I Can’t Say No” is adorable. When Whitman and Langweiler are paired together for “All er Nothin’,” they are endearing.
Suzanne Ardite as Aunt Eller is Laurey’s no-nonsense aunt with a heart of gold. In between churning the buttermilk, knitting this or that, collecting the eggs or milking the cow, this is the woman who will set everyone straight if they go off in the wrong direction. Ardite is gold as Aunt Eller.
Adam Zucal continues to give memorable performances. Even in a small role in “Hunchback” a season ago, he was noteworthy. His Ali Hakim, raspy voice with a sales pitch for everything, is the epitome of the traveling salesman. He is always trying to close the deal, whether selling you a garter for your girlfriend or getting a little nookie for himself.
One of the highlights of the show was the dream sequence. Marley Madding and Devon Reid as Dream Laurey and Curley were amazing. One of the many special elements of “Oklahoma!” has always been Laurey’s dream.
Laurey’s dream contains one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most beautiful songs, “Out of My Dreams.” Beyond the lush melody and wistful lyrics, a classic ballet was created for the moment by Agnes de Mille. Kudos to choreographer Reina Faith for a job well done. It was graceful. It was beautiful. It was touching. An outstanding job by all the dancers.
Congratulations also to director Joe Knapp. He has filled the stage with joy, wonderful acting, singing and dance. With a cast of 30-plus on a small stage, he has created magic. Also, a round of applause to music director Joe Nappi and costume designer Nancy Ridgeway. Scott Monsees provided the necessary lighting, which can be complex at times. Dustin Karrat brought reality to the fight scene as fight coordinator.
By the end of the show, the cast is singing the title song “Oklahoma!” full force to the audience. When the show was originally done back in 1943, it had been called “Away We Go.” But, when the audience heard the song “Oklahoma!,” it was so rousing and seemed so all-American that the name of the show changed to “Oklahoma!” It was wartime, and that song seemed hopeful and it said “the land you belong to is grand!”
“Oklahoma!” stills fills you with pride. In a time of division, it is good to hear that “the farmer and the cowman can be friends,” which are lyrics in the Act Two opening song, “The Farmer and the Cowman.” It is even better to feel the audience’s heart swell to “Oklahoma!” Why? Because the land we belong to is GRAND, and you ARE doing fine, Oklahoma — Oklahoma, OK!”
This wonderfully produced and directed show runs until Aug. 10, and tickets can be purchased online. Town and Country Players is located at 4158 Old York Road in Buckingham.