How the West is Sung

The singing, dancing cowboys in Lyric Stage's Oklahoma! compete for your attention this week with the singing, dancing seventh president in Theatre Three's Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson. With Jersey Boys and its singing, almost-dancing quartet of lovable mooks back in town for a month-long run at the Winspear, there may not be a better chance this year to experience the broad scope of American musical theater.

This version of Oklahoma! is closer to the original than the 1955 movie or any of the various New York revivals or touring productions of the last half century. Lyric's musical director, Jay Dias, has gone back to the original orchestrations by arranger Robert Russell Bennett, restoring numbers in Oklahoma! that typically are cut to shorten or simplify the score. What a happy surprise to hear the songs "It's a Scandal! It's a Outrage!" and "Lonely Room" back where Rodgers and Hammerstein intended, providing jolts of comedy and pathos in what otherwise is a corny-as-Kansas folk operetta about young people loving and lusting in the Oklahoma Territory of the early 1900s.

Producer Steven Jones and director Cheryl Denson have keen eyes for casting hot new talent in the shows they do together at Lyric. For Oklahoma! they went young for the leads, finding fresh-faced kids, some local, some from New York auditions. When Bryant Martin, as leading man Curly, strolls on at the top of the first act, crooning "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," he's the ideal dreamboat, the one every R&H musical deserves. His love object, straight-talking farm girl Laurey, is played by Savannah Frazier with a tomboyish bite. They act their duets as musical foreplay, teasing and taunting, innocently but with a strong undercurrent of let's-neck-in-the-root-cellar-after-sundown.

The villainous intruder in their love story is brooding farmhand Jud Fry, who has to be sexy enough to get Laurey's attention but scary enough to make her lock her doors at night. Most productions cast Jud too old, too fat, too ugly or just too creepy to be believed. Lyric's Jud, UT-Austin grad student Kyle Cotton, is a handsome dude who acts the bejeebers out of the part, giving Jud aspects of Asperger's (he never looks anyone in the eye) that make the character intensely interesting.

Cotton's take on Jud Fry paints shadows that complement all the other characters' sunny colors. We have to worry that Laurey might choose the wrong man because he's such a turn-on — and that's where the tension lies. Curly must work to win Laurey's love, even if it means selling his horse and saddle to beat Jud's all-in bid for Laurey's picnic hamper at the box social. ("Box socials," young 'uns, were the early American version of meet-ups.)

If Laurey and Curly are the good kids in Oklahoma!, Ado Annie (Erica Harte) and Will Parker (Sean McGee) are the couple most likely to get caught with their bloomers down in the hayloft. He's already been to Kansas City to see ladies undress in a "burley-queue." She's fooling around with Middle Eastern peddler Ali Hakim (Brad M. Jackson, making the part a sharply comic tour de force). Annie and Will's numbers, "I Cain't Say No" and "All Er Nuthin'," are goofy nonsense but Harte and McGee are adorable doing them.

It's all just lovely, with a bright golden haze over every scene. They didn't try to reinvent Oklahoma! here. Lyric Stage just rediscovered how great it was in the first place.

Long before the farmers and cowmen of Oklahoma! started celebrating new statehood, President Andrew Jackson had swept the Native Americans off Southern land and marched them down to reservations. You'll learn bits about that ugly chapter of American history and a lot about the seventh president in the rowdy rock musical Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, now playing in a production at Theatre Three directed by Bruce R. Coleman.

It's an angry, funny, punchy piece of satirical pageantry, full of intentional anachronisms commenting on the "Occupy" movement and swings at both political parties — three if you count the Tea Party. Created in 2009 by Alex Timbers (book) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics), it's Schoolhouse Rock meets Rocky Horror meets 1776.

Kitchen Dog Theater and Shakespeare Dallas actor Cameron Cobb explodes onto the stage as the title character, decked out in emo drag, with black nail polish and tight black jeans and boots. He's a wild, omnisexual Andy Jackson, swaggering like Jagger and slithering around the mic as he wails about being a "hick cowboy general."

The score's best moment is a bouncy number called "Populism Yea Yea!," in which the chorus sings: "And we're gonna take this country back for people like us, who don't just think about things." They sure didn't think about the Indians (standing in for all tribes is Black Fox, played nicely by Sergio Antonio Garcia). Jackson's massive land grab pushes Americans westward to new frontiers and, he brags in the show, "makes Jefferson look like a pussy." Screw the native peoples. White guys need room to sprawl.

Maybe this is the way Manifest Destiny should always be taught. It's The Daily Show approach: Be a little rude, even majorly outrageous and slip in some sticky facts that are legit and educational (more or less). Stage it with a pounding rock score and a balls-to-wall performance, and you've got yourself an A-plus history lesson.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner