Debuting in March of 1943, Oklahoma! was the first musical of the now iconic team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III. Based on Lynn Riggs’ play, Green Grow the Lilacs, the musical follows the story of cowboy Curly McLain and his budding romance with farm girl Laurey Williams in the Oklahoma Territory outside the town of Claremore. The Kingsport Theatre Guild is doing a pretty good job of bringing this production to life with an overall solid presentation and a few standout moments along the way. But unlike Kansas City, this production hasn’t gone as far as it can go just yet.
It goes without saying that with so many adaptations over the years, the bar has been set pretty high as far as performance goes for Oklahoma!, and KTG has put forth a grand effort in presenting this classic musical to our community. On the whole, the cast and crew have put together a production to be proud of. Of particular interest to us were the characters of Will Parker (Tyler Bishop) and Ado Annie Carnes (Lucy George). These two young people are verging on show stealers! Developed as a secondary story to that of Curly (Jordan Click) and Laurey (Makenna Arnold), the romance between Will and Ado Annie is more of a comedic one which Bishop and George bring to life beautifully. These two characters are an excellent juxtaposition and compliment to the seriousness of their counterparts and their strained relationship. However, a portion of the reason Ado Annie and Will stand out so much over Laurey and Curly is due to a seeming underdevelopment in character by comparison. Both Makenna Arnold and Jordan Click are experienced performers but, in our opinion, there are pieces of their portrayals of these particular characters that come up just a bit short. The grit of the frontier is missing. We never fully see how hardened either of these characters have become by their life in the Oklahoma Territory. The same can be said for Aunt Eller (Christy Peters). Peters has done an excellent job of capturing the fun loving side of the character, but we are not shown the more gritty side that allows her to be able to run a farm mostly on her own, with the aid of just her niece and a single hired hand. This is a large production with numerous elements including dialogue, vocals, choreography, and more and it may be that character development was forced to take a backseat in the creative process.
Oklahoma! employs a large ensemble as well as quite a significant number of musical instruments. Choreography is no small feat with an average cast and this was no exception. It may have served the group to have removed a few persons here and there in various dance numbers. Bigger isn’t always better. Our advice would be to bear in mind the space you have to work with and also play to your strengths as well as those of your cast members. The music for this production is live and done quite nicely. If we understand correctly, this is the largest live band/orchestra that KTG has ever had in house. There are moments when the mix of music and vocals is slightly out of balance and we did lose some of the vocals, but overall it was a pleasant musical experience.
The set is done simply, but very effectively. Accents are well placed to give a nice overall feel. That being said, the colors are a bit too bright for our taste. We would have preferred either a more dull color pallet or a color wash in the lighting scheme to give a ‘dingy’ appearance to the set. The bright, pastel colors of the buildings are not reminiscent of a dusty, Oklahoma, homestead in the early 1900s. Also, a color wash would add depth to the costumes as well. The ballet/dream sequence at the end of the first act is in need of some additional light as well. From an audience perspective, the current lighting appears as though there is a missed light cue and the actors are just proceeding with business as usual in spite of the incorrect lights. There is a little too much shadow to properly see what is happening, especially in the case of someone who has any type of vision impairment. The slightest touch of front lighting would give just enough definition without ruining the dreamlike quality of the sequence. Additionally, the costuming feels like a mish-mash of multiple styles and periods thrown together. In general, the men were mostly on point. The ladies on the other hand, were not quite as together. There appeared to be several non-period dresses as well as shoe choices.
All that being said, we do applaud KTG and director Kenn Naegle for a job well done. A production of this size is no easy task. We are well aware that this is not New York. Community theatre is a labor of love and we know that every person on and off of that stage loves what they are doing and we thank you for all that you have done and will continue to do. We do encourage you to visit Kingsport Theatre Guild and see Oklahoma! this weekend. The show was enjoyable. It is a family friendly production with mild violence and a few gunshots. Please visit the KTG website at www.kingsporttheatre.org for performance information and to get tickets.