In the bright early morning haze, as the sun rises over the wild expanse of unsettled Oklahoma, a beaming young cattle-roper named Curly gazes out into a field and makes one very good guess.
He’s got a wonderful feeling, you see, that everything’s going his way.
Anyone who’s ever seen or heard of “Oklahoma!” – surely the most popular musical in high school drama club history – knows that Curly is speaking the truth. What happens in the space between the most optimistic opening number of any musical ever written (“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ”) and its final line of dialogue is almost beside the point. Audience members know they’re going to get a good, old-fashioned dose of musical theater fantasy delivered via melodies more addictive than movie theater popcorn. And that’s why they’ve been returning to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s seminal collaboration since it helped to redefine the art form in 1943.
And that lovely, simple and uninflected brand of escapism is exactly what the Lancaster Opera House production of “Oklahoma!,” which runs through March 17, provides.
Since Lancaster Opera House Artistic Director David Bondrow arrived at the theater in 2009, he has worked hard to bring the standards of its musical productions up to a professional standard. This “Oklahoma!” is evidence of Bondrow’s deep knowledge of musical theater history and his keen attention to the details that make an anachronistic piece of theater like this tick. Weak productions of “Oklahoma!” tend to amplify all its simplistic plot turns and schlocky lyrics. Smart ones such as this highlight the irresistible spirit of American optimism it embodies and all the innovations of Agnes De Mille’s choreography and staging it introduced to musical theater.
This production runs on the power of Bondrow’s direction as well as the vocal and physical energy of leads Michael Niederer (Curly) and Emily Yancey (Laurey, Curly’s temperamental love interest).
Niederer embraces Curly’s cardboard construction as an exemplar of masculinity, an unthinkably virtuous man so pure of heart and soul that other male specimens seem pathetic by comparison. Here is a guy who, when confronted with the sight of some smoggy old meadow, maintains his casual manliness even while blaring out a soaring hymn to its impossible quotidian beauty.
In real life, if someone sprang out of bed before sunrise, gazed out at, say, an iced-over Lake Erie, and launched into a major-key paean to its unspeakable glory, we would probably think of that person as slightly batty.
The magic of “Oklahoma!” – or any of the better old-fashioned musicals – is that we don’t think Curly is batty at all. In fact, despite how we might feel about inappropriate outbursts of emotion in real life, Niederer involves us deeply in Curly’s giddy excitement at all those swaying cornstalks and statuesque cattle.
As Laurey, Yancey is the picture of impetuousness and her voice is glorious on songs like “People Will Say We’re in Love” and “Out of My Dreams.” As Ali Hakim, the philandering peddler from Persia, David Mitchell is delightful; and the gifted dancer and singer Tim Lewis is magnetic as Ado Annie’s suitor, Will Parker.
As the action progresses, though, some of the weaker parts of this production make themselves evident.
As Ado Annie, the girl who can’t say no, Cassandra Angerosa gets her character’s doe-eyed naiveté just right but sometimes struggles to find the right pitch and volume. Jeffrey Coyle goes overboard as the volatile Jud Fry, and the trio of ballet dancers in an otherwise beautifully executed dream sequence at the end of the first act sometimes had trouble staying together.
All those things hold the production back from its full potential. But they were minor enough that I walked out of the theater thinking not about how narrowly the show missed perfection, but about how glad I was to have reconnected with this grand old musical theater chestnut – and what a beautiful evening it was.
When: Through March 17
Where: Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Ave., Lancaster
Tickets: $20 to $22
Info: 683-1776 or www.lancopera.org