Ted Chapin, the writer and host of the 92Y Lyrics & Lyricists Series’ A Beautiful Dawning: Oklahoma! at 75, did an impeccable job creating one of the best editions of this important series. Here was a program both entertaining and informative. The information was as enjoyable as the performances of the four singers who were directed and choreographed by Parker Esse and accompanied by the incredible Andy Einhorn and his brilliant musical ensemble.
This paean to the fabled Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, steered by one of the greatest R&H experts in the world, could not have been more timely with a brand new interpretation of Oklahoma! doing S.R.O. business at the Circle in the Square creating much discussion for its radical reinterpretation. This and other radically rethought stagings were examined in a program that presented all the events and collaborations that led inexorably to the 1943 production that revolutionized musical theater forever.
The show began with Jason Gotay sauntering on singing ”Git Along Little Dogie” and not “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” a fake-out that actually was related to the subject at hand. It turns out that in Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs, the 1931 play that was the source material for Oklahoma!, the Curley character entered singing that song. Who knew?
The first half of the program was about all the events and artists that led to Oklahoma! itself including a song that was actually written by Hammerstein and Rodgers in 1919: “There’s Always Room for One More,” sung by Phillip Attmore as the amorous male who entrances Kerstin Anderson and Nyla Watson with his Casanova ways. It was a cute song but didn’t show any promise of the genius work the two later produced.
Rodgers’ brilliant collaboration with the unpredictable Lorenz Hart was represented by “You Took Advantage of Me” sung with a sassy smile by Ms. Watson. The radiance of Hammerstein’s historic partnership with Jerome Kern (which resulted in the historic Show Boat) was highlighted with one of their last songs, the luminous “All the Things You Are,” sung with a wistful tenderness by Ms. Anderson.
A medley of 1940’s songs by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart showed how urbane and witty these songwriters were and how the score to Oklahoma! stood out from the pack.
“When I Go Out Walking With My Baby” and “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” two songs cut from Oklahoma! proved to be gems. The former, written for the character of the Persian peddler Ali Hakim was a cakewalk sung and danced by Mr. Attmore with great energy. The latter, which was replaced by “People Will Say We’re in Love,” was a gentle love duet sung by Mr. Gotay and Ms. Anderson.
The first half ended with a rousing rendition of the title song using Robert Russell Bennett’s original arrangement.
Part Two was devoted to songs from the score. Mr. Chapin discussed several recent productions of Oklahoma! across the country including one where the romantic characters were same-sex couples and one where the characters felt the “dirt under their fingernails.”
Mr. Gotay sang Ado Annie’s “I Cain’t Say No” turning it into a gay man’s confession and Mr. Attmore danced Mr. Esse’s hardscrabble choreography to “Kansas City” while Mr. Watson sang Jud Fry’s bitter “Lonely Room.”
“The Farmer and the Cowman” was sung by all after Mr. Chapin pointed out the irony that although the show was set in “Indian territory,” no mention of Native Americans was evident.
Chapin was aided by Dan Scully’s projections which showed a map of the Oklahoma territory, photos of the creative artists, excerpts from the score, and dreamy landscapes.
Maestro Einhorn’s ensemble, all dolled up in western shirts, included himself on piano, Justin Smith on violin, Scott Kuney on guitar, Mark Vanderpoel on bass and Perry Cavari on drums, virtuosos all.
It would have been impossible to come away from A Beautiful Dawning without finding new respect and admiration for this seminal musical, a theatrical breakthrough, that will hopefully live for many generations to come.
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists Series: “A Beautiful Dawning: Oklahoma! at 75” (May 4 – 6, 2019)
92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-415-5500 or visit http://www.92Y.org/Lyrics
Running time: two hours including one intermission