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THEATER REVIEW : 'Oklahoma!' Shines Through on Its Golden Anniversary : The heavy, Jud Fry, figures as the most compelling character in this PCPA Theaterfest's revival. Its production numbers are lavishly choreographed.

July 29, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's probably a sign of the times that the most compelling character in PCPA Theaterfest's revival of "Oklahoma!" turns out to be the obsessive, brooding farmhand, Jud Fry.

Fry figures prominently as the dark "third wheel" who sets out to thwart the budding romance between Curly, the range-roaming cowboy, and Laurey, the prairie farm girl who tames him in this lush Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about the uncluttered vistas of the turn-of-the-century Oklahoma Territory.

Granted, it's hard not to be riveted by Jack Greenman's standout performance as Jud. Whether festering in his dim, cheerless smokehouse lodgings, or lumbering about with an ominous air of surly sadism, Greenman never wavers in depicting Jud's all-consuming quest for vengeance on the community that spurns him.

But even more disturbing than this accomplished performance is the innate appeal of the character.

He's certainly a deeper, more involved figure than either of the show's central lovebirds. And this despite sweet and heartfelt performances from Scott Aukerman as Curly and Elizabeth Stuart as Laurey.

Of course, villains traditionally reflect more complex motivations than heroes, but present-day dramatic expectations seem to have made character flaws a prerequisite to credibility. The integrity of the Old West has fallen on hard times--from the recurring vision of cowboys-as-hollow-icons in Sam Shepherd's early plays to Clint Eastwood's assault on his own mythology in "Unforgiven," our image of home on the range has taken on a decidedly dysfunctional hue.

And so in watching "Oklahoma!" on its 50th anniversary, one can't help notice how next to the psychological scars that wrack Jud's every line of dialogue, the purity and simplicity of Curly and Laurey seem hopelessly idealized and improbable.

Not that they were any more realistic back in 1943, when Rodgers' music and Hammerstein's book and lyrics set out to celebrate the wholesome American values of an even-then bygone era.

But audiences then were still able to accept those values as part of their own heritage. In our more cynical times, principles of decency, lifelong partnership, and community spirit gleam like untouchable amber-coated specimens from an unfamiliar world.

The only points of entry are those songs--unforgettable to those who heard them the first time and a staple in the family record collections of those who followed.

Fortunately, "Oklahoma!" live still has considerable power to entertain, particularly in PCPA's lavish production numbers, which are impeccably choreographed by Karen Barbour--notably "Kansas City," "The Farmer and the Cowman," and of course the rousing title song.

Clearly, PCPA director Brad Carroll understands his genre and the historical significance of "Oklahoma!" within it, and has staged the show with affection and generally smart choices. There is however, a distracting tendency toward blocking that favors audience exposure over some of the songs' dramatic dynamics; not facing the person you're singing to further strains the already tenuous circumstance of bursting into song in the first place.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Oklahoma!" will be performed through Aug. 14 at the Festival Theatre in Solvang, Wednesdays through Sundays at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $12-$17. Running time is two hours, 50 minutes. For reservations or information, call (800) 549-7272.

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