Green Grow the Lilacs is a love story set in a community on the brink of change: farmers crowding cowboys, Indians assimilating with settlers and Oklahomans pondering the controversial question of the territory’s statehood. In 1931, Lynn Riggs, part Cherokee himself, wrote about people whitewashed by Rogers and Hammerstein for 1940s’ audiences in their musical adaptation, Oklahoma!, which eclipsed the original.
Under the direction of Native American dramaturgist Christy Stanlake, the Naval Academy’s Masqueraders present an interpretation more faithful to the playwright’s intent — and one that has earned the troupe an invitation to perform at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Despite its distinctly native look, the story remains familiar to Oklahoma! fans.
Curly (John Tanalega) still courts the aloof ingénue Laurey (Kiley Provenzano), and Aunt Eller (Sylvia Kilburn) encourages them even as the villainous Jeeter (Michael McPherson) threatens their happiness. Ado Annie (Judy Valderrabano) is there, but in a simpler guise, chasing the Peddler (Ryan Mati). Plus there’s lots of singin’ and dancin’ at Old Man Peck’s (Mark Pfender’s) place.
Three major elements of this show are different. First is the graphic image of the villain in his lair, leering and twisting his tales of discontent. McPherson presents a truly creepy threat to Laurey’s innocence, adding a layer of suspense that the musical lacks.
Second is the matter of an obscure but crucial custom whose significance is lost to the audience. It’s called Shivaree, the nuptial harassment that lands Curly in jail. More needs to be made of this term both in the script and the program notes.
Finally, folk music pervades the storyline like watercolors on a pencil sketch. From Get Along Little Dogies to Skip to My Lou, you may recognize half a dozen old favorites sung simply by a cast of leads who do double duty.
There are fine performances by budding talent.
Close your eyes when Tanalega sings, and you’ll swear it’s Willy Nelson. Open them again, and it’s almost Elvis come to call on Laurey. She’s one lucky gal, indeed, and so fresh and young. Provenzano has the demeanor of a 14-year-old, which seems just right for the times. Kilburn’s Aunt Eller fairly yodels to the back of the room like Minnie Pearl, with every word clear as a bell. Mati delivers a roguish conman, and Pfender’s fine voice almost outshines his atrocious makeup.
But the show drags in the big-company productions. Try as they might, the supporting ensemble of 13 fails to sell their contra dance as a knee-slappin’ good time, and the more dramatic crowd scenes lack the urgency of real-life drama. The presence of a midshipman bluegrass band minted for this show, The Severn River Boys, is both a bonus and a problem. When the quartet of Ben Porter, Matthew Debbink, Wes Bochner and Eric Hegg plays during scene changes it’s a fun diversion. But they are better as a solo act than as accompanists.
There’s a lot to like here, not least of which is showman Richard Montgomery’s remarkable set. Even if the scope of the project is a bit of a reach for the time-pressed midshipmen, contemporary audiences who favor historical accuracy over romantic fiction will enjoy this back-story of a classic.
Director: Christy Stanlake. Technical director: Nicholas Peskosky. Set and costume designer: Richard Montgomery. Choral director: Ben Ball. Choreographer: Heather Foxton.
Playing Fri. Nov. 19 and Sat. Nov. 20 at 8pm at Mahan Hall, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis. $10; bring photo ID and park outside the gates: 410-293-8497; www.usna.edu/Masqueraders/index.php.