Maybe you have visions of Shirley Jones as Laurey from the 1955 film version. Or maybe you just can’t get a tune like “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” out of your head. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, and Theatre Under the Stars marks its 50th. What better occasion, then, to take a musical theater classic and infuse it with the artistry of the magnificent dancers from the Houston Ballet? With original choreography from Agnes de Mille, Houston Ballet’s Stanton Welch has reenergized this musical with choreography for a fascinating blend of past and present. The ballet ensemble really makes this show, and dance aficionados of all stripes will enjoy seeing these dancers reinvigorate a familiar production.
If you are unfamiliar with this musical, the main thing is that there is romance on the plains, and a stubborn farm girl must choose between a likable cowboy who actually fancies her and a psycho who needs professional help. Also: dancing and fundraisers with pies for schoolhouses and such. Mainly singing and dancing.
The set is wonderful, with an Oklahoma farmhouse cleverly reversed into a smoke house, and a gorgeous pink-clouded sky with a windmill in the background. I also loved the costumes by Karen Perry, which were traditional for this show. I was impressed by how the dresses were so danceable, and I particularly loved the sequences done en pointe.
Everything ultimately comes back to the edgy choreography that sometimes emerges unexpectedly. One moment you have cowboys doing a kind of predictable routine, entertaining but unsurprising, and then you have scenes that are more suggestive and violent, underscoring the menacing presence of Jud Fry (Eric Ulloa) and the threat he represents with his aggressive and unpredictable behavior as a worker who competes with the charming Curly (Sam Simahk) for the attention of Laurey (Olivia Hernandez). I had forgotten how threatening Jud's character was; the surreal dream sequences emphasize the violence that is a powerful undercurrent throughout the show.
I enjoyed the romance between Laurey and Curley, and both actors have strong voices, but my favorite performers were Priscilla Lopez playing Aunt Eller, and Madeline Hamlet playing Ado Annie. Both women have superlative comedic timing, and Hamlet’s rendition of “I Cain’t Say No” was perhaps the highlight of the show for me. She was so funny and charming and handled that song with aplomb. Her inability to refuse the advances of men is an entertaining contrast to Laurey’s attempts to play “hard to get.” It’s also a welcome lighthearted part of a show with a dark side, with the looming presence of Jud and the rather bizarre and twisted suggestion of suicide in the song “Pore Jud is Daid.”
I will be honest: Oklahoma! has never been my favorite musical in the world. But with memorable comedic performances and the visionary inclusion of the talents of the Houston Ballet added to the mix, we are reminded that you can make old shows new again, and for fans of dance, this is a welcome innovation.
Thru Sept. 23. Tickets from $30. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. 713-315-2525. More info and tickets at tuts.com.