NEW CASTLE, Pa.
“Oklahoma!” has been kicking around for 68 years (it premiered on Broadway in March 1943), but the current Brent Rodgers’-directed New Castle Playhouse production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s bucolic perennial just occasionally shows its age.
Like many “classic” (read: old) musicals, “Oklahoma!” seems deeply flawed on a conceptual level to contemporary sensibilities. The first act is wildly overlong; the deeply unpleasant character of Jud Fry remains a sore spot (is he even necessary to the plot?); Persian peddler Ali Hakim is an unfunny ethnic stereotype that hasn’t aged well; and the pretentious, overwrought “Dream Ballet” that closes Act I continues to be something of a head-scratcher. Even when skillfully executed — as it is here — the sequence still teeters on the verge of insipidity. Plus, the interminable hoedown number scored to “The Farmer and the Cowman” that opens Act 2 goes on much too long (shades of the equally fatiguing wedding scene from “Fiddler on the Roof”).
Despite its historical backdrop (the show takes place in the Oklahoma territory during the early part of the 20th century), Hammerstein’s book is essentially a folksy soap opera.
Free-spirited farm girl Laurey (Dawn Morelli) is the comely prize in a romantic duel between nice-guy cowboy Curly (Matthew DiBattiste) and brooding ranch hand Jud (David J. Zaccari). And flirty daddy’s girl Ado Annie (Molly Makselan) is aggressively courted by aw-shucks cowpoke Will (Phil Cowen, flat-out terrific) and traveling salesman Ali (Josh Antoon).
If “Oklahoma!” is conspicuously weak in the story department, it’s positively bursting at the seams with high-stepping production numbers (Jonelle Paris did the impressive choreography); irrepressibly hummable tunes (“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” “People Will Say We’re in Love” and the title song are the standouts in a mostly terrific score); and a surplus of cornpone humor (much of which feels badly dated in 2011).
The New Castle Playhouse is justly famous for its Broadway-caliber production values, and “Oklahoma!” is no exception.
The costumes (by Barb Hall, Peggy Hanna and Audra Moesta) and set design (by Rodgers and Moesta) are, once again, indisputably first-rate. Morelli and Makselan’s distracting wigs probably weren’t such a great idea, though, since they have a regrettable tendency to upstage the actors at every turn. Also something of a letdown was the orchestral accompaniment, which lacked the usual full-bodied NCP oomph.
As for acting, however, this “Oklahoma!” rarely makes a false move. DiBattiste delivers his most relaxed and engaging musical-comedy performance to date; the wildly charismatic Cowen steals every scene he’s in (his “Oklahoma Hello” brought down the house — twice!); Zaccari brings formidable stage presence — and a superb singing voice — to stock villain Jud, even if his two songs (“Pore Jud is Daid” and “Lonely Room”) are among the show’s weakest; Antoon is so guilelessly, effortlessly charming as Akin that he almost makes you forget how culturally insensitive his role is; Morelli and the spectacularly funny Makselan bring real show biz razzmatazz to the brassy female leads (in spite of their unprepossessing coiffures).
Rodgers, whose only previous NCP directing stint was helming a 2008 children’s theater production of “101 Dalmatians,” does an admirable job here. I’m anxious to see what he tackles next.
“Oklahoma!” runs through May 15 at the New Castle Playhouse, 202 E. Long Ave., in New Castle. Friday and Saturday performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinees begin at 2 p.m.
For reservations, call 724-654-3437.