Goodspeed Opera's charming 'Bloomer Girl'
East Haddam, Conn. — When ''Bloomer Girl'' opened on Broadway in the fall of '44, it was assumed that another ''Oklahoma'' was in the works. After all, Celeste Holm, ''Oklahoma's'' Ado Annie, was the lead; the choreography was by Agnes de Mille; the plot was historical; the scale was grand.
''Bloomer Girl,'' as seen in its revival at the Goodspeed Opera House (through Nov. 22), is no ''Oklahoma,'' but it's a deliciously entertaining, charming, perhaps silly work that boasts a fine array of Harold Arlen-E. Y. Harburg songs, a Sig Herzig-Fred Saidy book riddled with opportunities for wry self-spoofery, a perplexing ballet.
The plot deals with Evangelina Applegate, from Cicero Falls, N.Y., and her aunt, Dolly Bloomer. It is just before the Civil War; hoop skirts are very ''in'' (with hoops manufactured by Evangelina's father), and Dolly fights the whole idea of hoops and oppressed women by adopting the then horridly shocking garb that soon was to take her name - bloomers.
The love interest revolves around Evangelina and Jefferson Lightfoot Calhoun, a suave Kentucky charmer who at first mistakes her for the maid. There is another subplot dealing with a Calhoun's runaway slave Pompey, and of course, behind it all, the specter of the Civil War. When war actually breaks out, we get the de Mille ballet - all about grief, loneliness, waiting for husbands to come home - not particularly appropriate to the show at that point, but interesting nonetheless.
The Goodspeed stage is notoriously small (unlike New York's Shubert, where ''Bloomer Girl'' ran for two seasons), but clever directors have known how to give the illusion of grandness. Happily, Michael Montel is such a director, and he has imbued the show with a true period style and a lovely touch of humor. As he showed in his exceptional production of ''She Loves Me,'' he knows the limitations of this stage and the talents of his performers. It is not so easy a balance to achieve, as director after director has proved. In fact, not since the days of that paragon of period stage manners, Bill Gile, has a Goodspeed director so adeptly captured that particular approach that has become known as the ''Goodspeed style.''
Montel happened to be gifted with an exceptional cast. Phenomenon of phenomenons, everyone could sing - no longer a given, even on Broadway. And each one could act. Top honors go to Judith Blazer as Evangelina, not just because she assumes the title role, but because she sings her music very well indeed, has a pair of mournful eyes that never warn you of her zany sense of humor until it flashes out, and is a full-blooded performer who brings this good role vividly to life. Her romantic swain is played by Stephen Lehew, dapper, even rakish, with his tall, bearded good looks, his pliant tenor (a few tight top notes aside), and his altogether dashing presence.
The cast is large and uniformly excellent: Dorothy Stinnette (Evangelina's mother); I. M. Hobson (Evangelina's father); Beth Fowler (Dolly Bloomer); Beth Austin (Daisy, the maid); Pi Douglass (Pompey), and others. Each is gifted with uncanny comic timing, the ability to toss off the sly unwritten aside, execute subtle double takes - in short offer complete characterizations where ciphers are usually considered to be enough.
Daniel Levans's choreography is all one could ask for, including a marvelous production number around ''Grandma Was a Lady.'' Lawrence King and Michael Yeargan are credited with making the Goodspeed stage look large and colorful with their sets. William B. Warfel has lit those sets commendably. David Toser's costumes are all quite elegant. As always, Lynn Crigler's musical direction is impeccable.