Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical theater classics, their first and oldest collaboration, Oklahoma!, remains their most contemporary. To modem eyes, Carousel’s hero Billy Bigalow may be seen as an abusive husband. South Pacific’s Nellie is so shocked that Emile had married a (heaven forbid!) Polynesian woman and had children with her that she breaks off their relationship. And The King and I’s King (of Siam no less) needs to be “modernized” by a British schoolteacher. There is, however, nothing dated about either Oklahoma!’s characters or its story. Also, unlike the ever-popular Sound of Music, Oklahoma! has its dark side, not only in the character of Jud Frye, but also in Laurey’s conflicted and repressed longings. That’s not to say that the other R&H musicals are anything less than classics. It just that Oklahoma! better than any others has stood the test of time.

This is eminently clear in Downey Civic Light Opera’s excellent revival, directed with imagination and intelligence by Marsha Moode, choreographed to bring out the best in its dancers by the ever youthful legend Miriam Nelson, and brought to passionate life by a uniformly fine group of musical theater performers.

In these days of a nearly overture-free Broadway, it’s a joy to hear Eddy Clement’s fine orchestra open the evening’s (or matinee’s) proceedings with a medley of one classic Richard Rodgers tune after another. The curtain rises on “A Current Map of the Oklahoma Country, the Home-Seeker’s Mecca.” Laurey’s farmhouse is then revealed, and we hear Curly’s offstage voice begin to sing the revolutionary Act 1 opener Oh What A Beautiful Morning (revolutionary because it was unheard of to open a Broadway musical without a big production number). Aunt Eller emerges from the farmhouse, Curly brings down a chair and her butter churn, and in a cute bit takes the chair for himself. (Yes, Moode’s direction is indeed imaginative.)

Aunt Eller, as portrayed by Downey regular Ann Peck McBride, is younger and more womanly than we remember her from other productions, a woman who could still turn a man’s head and enjoy it. Curly (Robert Standley) is as handsome as we know he should be, and in Standley’s hands, charming as well. With Jill Van Velzer’s Laurey looking on adoringly, Standley sings “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” and we, like Laurey are hooked. Van Velzer’s Laurey is a far more complex young woman than we’ve seen before. In fact, never have I seen the role acted with more depth than Van Velzer brings to it. No bland ingénue she, and when Laurey learns that Curly’s been inventing the surrey, her disappointment is palpable and heartrending. Add to this her lovely soprano, and she is the ideal Rodgers and Hammerstein leading lady.

As Ado Annie, spunky Karen Volpe is a classic funny girl comedienne who recalls 40s and 50s comedy star Judy Canova. As Annie’s #1 suitor, all American boy Casey Garritano sings and dances Kansas City with the best of Broadway and Hollywood’s dance stars (plus he’s a whiz with a lasso.) George Champion has great comic timing as the Persian peddler Ali Hakim, milking laughs from every line.

Ali: You want to marry her?
Will: Yes.
Ali: (incredulously) Deliberately???

And later:

Ado Annie: (apologetically) I gotta marry Will.
Ali: (with a broad grin) Oh that makes me so sad to hear.

As many laughs as there are in Oklahoma!, Oscar Hammerstein’s book (based on a Lynn Riggs play) has its serious and even dark moments. When Laurey tells Ali Hakim of her wishes, we sense that these are secret and even frightening dreams that she keeps hidden, especially in Van Velzer’s superb multi-layered performance. And then there is Jud Frye, who as portrayed by the compelling August Stoten is much more than the usual villain of the piece, but a complex and deeply disturbed man. That Stoten exudes a certain sex appeal gives us even more reason to understand Laurey’s conflicted desires. Surprising then how many laughs the “Poor Jud is Dead” scene with Curly provokes until Jud reveals a truly frightening side.

Fortunately, there is always the Ado Annie/Will/Ali Hakim triangle to lighten the mood. Garritano makes an adorable “dumb blond” at arithmetic as Ali offers outrageously high prices to buy his way out of marriage with Annie. And, of course, there’s the classic scene where Ali’s Persian goodbye (with kisses rising from hand to arm to cheek) is trumped by Will’s Oklahoma hello (the kiss smack dab on the lips). Sensational comedic work by Volpe, Garritano, and Champion.

Downey’s production boasts a truly huge cast of 45, including a number of very talented children. Among the adults, John F. Briganti as Andrew Carnes is especially good, in the crusty old Walter Brennan tradition. Both male and female dancers are surprising proficient in an ensemble filled with Downey locals. (This is truly theater of, by and for the community.)

A recent London West End revival which transferred to Broadway and spawned an excellent national tour featured two innovations which the more traditional Downey production eschews. The revival boasted a simple and highly stylized set design. Downey’s uncredited sets are more literal, but fine indeed (with special mention due Jud’s smokehouse created with great attention to detail).

The other innovation of the London “revisal” was to have the actors who played Curly and Laurey dance Laurey’s dream ballet as well. Downey’s production goes the traditional route, the dream ballet featuring the outstanding dancing of Downey regular Courtney Burfeind as Dream Laurey and an uncredited Casey Garritano as Dream Curly. (The unprecedented playing of both Will and Dream Curly makes the talented Garritano the production’s undisputed “secret weapon. “)

In virtually every respect, Marsha Moode and her community based Downey Civic Light Opera have risen to the task of creating a truly fine production of an American classic. Oklahoma! may be 64 going on 65, but in the hands of these excellent performers, and as the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic (from another show) goes, it’s still “younger than springtime,” and, may I add, A-OK (lahoma)!

Downey Theatre, 8435 E. Firestone Blvd. , Downey.

–Steven Stanley
October 14, 2007

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