As the orchestra plays the final notes of the overture, the curtain rises on a middle-aged woman sitting alone on stage in front of a butter churn, her hands around the plunger, methodically moving it up and down. Behind the woman is a farmhouse and fields of corn as high as an elephant’s eye, and her long country dress tells us we are in the early 1900s.  From offstage comes a male voice singing a capella, “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow…” The voice grows louder until the man enters, wearing a cowboy hat and chaps. “Oh what a beautiful morning… Oh what a beautiful day,” serenades the man to the farm woman, who continues her churning.

What?  This is a musical comedy?

1943 Broadway audiences must certainly have registered shock at the first moments of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, for never before had a musical opened so quietly. Where were the dancing girls?  Where were the jokes? Where was the bright and bouncy opening production number?

Oklahoma! was most definitely a first. Though a handful of musicals had told serious stories before and integrated songs into the story telling (most notably 1927’s Show Boat), Oklahoma! is to this day considered the first modern Broadway musical, without which there might have been no Guys And Dolls, or My Fair Lady, or West Side Story.

Amazingly, the 65-year-old musical remains the least dated and the most timeless of the Rodgers and Hammerstein oeuvre, and for those in need of proof, there’s a terrific new revival brightening FCLO Music Theatre’s stage down Fullerton way.

FCLO’s production is a youthful one, and the vitality of the early-20something leading performers gives this Oklahoma! a special cachet.  Doug Carpenter is Curly, the cowboy with a hankerin’ for the lovely but stand-offish Laurey (Lexy Romano), and Colette Peters is Ado Annie, the girl who “cain’t say no” to a man, any man.

Oklahoma!’s story unfolds over the course of a single “beautiful day,” the day of the box social dance.  As Curly and Laurey exchange barbed words, their flirtatious undertone makes it clear that these two are made for each other. Curly describes the “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” which he’ll be driving when he comes to pick Laurey up for the dance, only to burst her bubble by telling her that it was all a fabrication. Later, Laurey informs her assembled girlfriends that “Many A New Day” will dawn before she ever loses sleep over a man (but of course we know that she’s only fooling herself). The flirting continues as Curly and Laurey duet “People Will Say We’re In Love,” warning each other of the consequences of Curly’s laughing at Laurey’s jokes too much or Laurey’s taking Curly’s arm in public.

What distinguishes these songs from those in pre-Oklahoma! musicals is that they actually advance the plot, their lyrics taking the place of spoken dialog. What distinguishes them from most contemporary Broadway musicals is that virtually every one of Oklahoma!’s songs has become an instantly recognizable standard, covered by dozens if not hundreds of pop singers over the past 65 years.

Though not a “musical comedy” in the pre-1943 sense, Oklahoma! does have its scenes of comic relief, revolving around Ado Annie’s inability to say no to either her beau Will Parker, or the supposedly Persian peddler Ali Hakim. Still, the introduction of the dark and dangerous Judd Frye, Curly’s rival for Laurey’s affections, makes it perfectly clear that Oklahoma! has more to offer than light-hearted frothy fun. In fact, it’s this perfect blend of the comedic and the dramatic that keeps Oklahoma! as fresh as if it had been written only yesterday.

Director Jan Duncan clearly knows how to stage a musical, beginning with casting performers who bring their own special stamp to a role, and her Oklahoma! is full of standout performances.

Doug Carpenter continues his swift rise to musical theater stardom with a revelatory performance as Curly. The aw-shucks charm of the Oklahoma cowpoke has freed the actor to really let loose, and his performance is oozing with charisma. Those who’ve seen his work in R&H’s Cinderella and West Side Story know that Carpenter has the finest musical theater voice since Kevin Earley burst on the scene a half dozen years ago. In Oklahoma!, he gets a chance to prove that he is also a winning actor, with a grin that would melt an iceberg.

Two other performances rise above the others in Duncan’s all-around excellent cast.

Colette Peters has been on my radar for the past few years.  As Ado Annie she gets the breakthrough role she richly deserves.  The adorable Peters is as pretty an Ado Annie as you’re likely to see, has a voice that can belt to the rafters, and is funny funny funny to boot.  Watch her delicious body language as she reinvents “I Cain’t Say No,” the juices inside her just a-bubblin’ to burst. Can you spell S-T-A-R?

Musical theater staple Sam Zeller is versatility personified.  (Check out my reviews of his work in the recent A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and Out Of This World.)  Here the affable actor completely disappears into the very scary skin of Judd, one truly menacing mountain of a man, and his solo “Lonely Room” showcases Zeller’s rich and powerful baritone. That Zeller has also played Curly in previous productions of Oklahoma! is further proof that this is one heck of a versatile performer.

Miss Fullerton 2008 Lexy Romano brings beauty and a lovely soprano to the role of Laurey, and Cathy Newman is a warm and feisty Aunt Eller. Robin Trowbridge (Will Parker) is a cracker-jack singer-dancer (his “Kansas City” is an Act 1 highlight) and Glenn Freeze steals every scene he’s in as the peddler with the hilariously unidentifiable accent. When Trowbridge and Freeze are onstage together vying for Peters’ affection, there is a spontaneous combustion of laughter.  Every actress who plays Laurey’s rival Gertie creates her own memorable “godawful laugh” for the role, and Katharine Larsen’s is one of the funniest and most original ever.  Dan Rodgers is a folksy Andrew Carnes.

Agnes de Mille’s original choreography was as revolutionary as the show itself, especially in the groundbreaking dream ballet sequence which concludes Act 1.  In FCLO’s production, Karen Nowicki once again proves herself one of our finest local choreographers, and Corina Gill and Chris Bonomo demonstrate graceful dancing skills as “Dream Laurey” and “Dream Curly.”

Todd Helm helms the FCLO Music Theatre’s superb 19-piece-orchestra, and in a breathtaking innovation that I hope to see repeated, the entire orchestra pit rises to stage level for the overture, allowing the audience to see the musicians—concert style. Encore, please, in upcoming productions!

Dwight Richard Odle’s original set design and costumes coordinated by Ambra Wakefield are Technicolor perfection, especially as lit by Christina L. Munich.  A.J. Gonzalez’s sound design deserves high marks as well.

Whether you’ve seen Oklahoma! umpteen times as I have, or it’s your first time experiencing it (as it was for the couple seated next to me), FCLO Music Theatre’s production is sure to delight. Oklahoma! may be celebrating its 65th anniversary, but it’s still as full of vim and vigor as if it were making its Broadway debut today. As the title song goes, “You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma!  Oklahoma O.K.  L – A – H – O – M – A OKLAHOMA!  Yeeow!”

(Also appearing in Oklahoma!:  Fernando Acevedo, Megan Burns, David Booth, Coleen Brown, Nolan Carter, Steve Chapin, Allen Everman, Amy Ganser, Emily S. Grosland, Kari Hall, Ginger Hart, Kimberly Himelman, Kurt Jarrad, Patrick Robert Kelly, Danny Longoria, Natalie MacInnis, Malee Martinez, Michelle Merlino, Derek Nemechek, Andrea Paquin, Nico Ramirez, Paul Rico, Ray Rothwell, Daniella Samuel, Desiree Staples, Alex Torrico, Jim Treblicox, Mark Wheeler, Ariel Widner)

FCLO Music Theatre, Plummer Auditorium, 210 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton.

–Steven Stanley
October 23, 2008

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