It's easy to forget sometimes, especially in a city of small stages and budgets, a city whose theaters can afford just a handful of Equity actors per production, a city where the classics of the genre are, by necessity, left to high schools and hobbyists. I have nothing against the folks from the neighborhood, but at most community productions of Broadway staples, it's less about the guys and dolls than the crew trying to get the damn show airborne.
So here's a toast to the artists and tacticians at the New Theatre and their current production of Oklahoma! Dozens are laboring here, and not only the actors, singers, dancers and tech people, but also the key contributors whom the NT folks might have skimped on: a small orchestra, a fight choreographer, maybe someone to brush up the Fosse-fed ensemble on its rootin' and tootin'. Most importantly, they've sprung for Patrick Du Laney and Jessalyn Kincaid, Kansas City's most ferociously talented young actors, showcased here before their largest audiences yet.
There's also an army of busboys freshening your water. Don't let that scare you. Dinner theater requires busboys, but it doesn't need Du Laneys and Kincaids, which bespeaks a commitment to excellence that might surprise some.
You see, all that time spent staging Nick at Night theater and worrying over Johnson Countians' food allergies pays off. And once a year or so, the NT shares the spoils.
So we have Oklahoma!, perhaps the grandest and most daring of the early "book" musicals. Within 10 minutes of the opening curtain, we're treated to "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and "Surrey With the Fringe On Top," which Curly (Broadway's Adam Monley) handles with a conversational warmth. He easily quells any doubts that husbands in Johnson County might have about paying good money to watch boys sing and play dress-up. He makes singing to the sunshine so appealingly masculine that the Marlboro people must be hassling him for a contract.
He's matched by Kansas City's Deb Bluford as Aunt Eller, a sweet-natured meddler who serves as chorus, chaperone and comic relief. With a hitch in her get-up and a wig of wild curls, Bluford offers superior corn pone, her every joke flung out as straight and true as a champion cow chip.
Soon, Curly is flirting with Aunt Eller's niece, Laurey, a prairie piece-of-work played by Tausha Torrez (who is replacing the original Laurey in mid-run). Torrez sings beautifully, but on the night I attended, her early coldness toward Curly came so close to absolute zero that her subsequent thawing seemed impossible.
What begins as a simple story of frontier love deepens and darkens as intermission approaches. First, though, come the high kicks and rope tricks, and the arrival of Kincaid as Ado Annie, the just-blossomed girl who "just can't say no." Channeling both Dolly Parton and Betty Boop, Kincaid makes one of the great comic roles in musical theater entirely her own. She's a study in horny naiveté.
The darkness arrives with Du Laney. As Jud Fry, the tortured hired hand on Aunt Eller's farm, Du Laney gets to go all Streetcar Named Desire, sweating and suffering, leering at the ladies, picking fights with the men, and generally pickling in his own juices. Director Dennis Hennessy forces us to feel along with his villain, and he and Du Laney build "Lonely Room," Fry's anguished soliloquy, into something swelling and scary. As both a number and a psychological profile, it's as unsettling here as it must have been back in 1943.
The same almost goes for the all-dance dream sequence that ends Act 1. The orchestra works up a heady tumult, and the dancers do their best in their limited space, but tentativeness hinders the near-rape climax. Still, it's a powerful sequence.
Act 2 peaks early but then somehow keeps on peaking. The singing's strong, the acting's ace, and the dramatic moments are taut and tense. The clash between Monley's easy grace and Du Laney's brute anger fuels this show. For all its big laughs and show-stopping numbers, not to mention its talk of statehood and a changing way of life, what sticks, after curtain, is the image of these two very different men clutched together in ugly, unnecessary violence. This Oklahoma! not only soars but stings, too. It's also the best show in this town, state or territory.