As the overture reaches its climax, lights come up on a middle-aged woman sitting alone on stage working a butter churn. Behind the woman is a farmhouse and fields of corn as high as an elephant’s eye, and her full-length country dress tells us we are in the early 1900s.  From offstage comes a male voice singing a cappella, “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.

This is the now classic opening scene of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, the musical which revolutionized Broadway back in 1943.  Gone were the dancing girls. Gone were the one-liners.  Gone was the bright and bouncy opening production number. This was a new kind of musical, one which (despite comedic interludes) told a serious story, one whose songs came out of the characters and propelled the action. 

Despite its age, the 66-year-old musical remains the least dated of the Rodgers and Hammerstein oeuvre, and for those in need of proof, check out Oklahoma! in the round at Glendale Centre Theatre.

Oklahoma!’s story unfolds over the course of a single “beautiful day,” the day of the box social dance.  As Curly (Robert Standley) and Laurey (Heather Lundstedt) 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, then quickly bursts 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.

Though not a “musical comedy” in the pre-1943 sense, Oklahoma! does have its scenes of comic relief, revolving around the inability of Ado Annie (Ann Myers) to say “No” to either her beau Will Parker (Jason Keef), or the supposedly Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Danny Michaels). Still, the introduction of the dark and dangerous Judd Frye (August Stoten), 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.

Glendale’s production is the third Oklahoma! I’ve seen over the past year and a half, and each has had elements to make it unique. Here, it’s seeing the show performed in-the-round, a setting which places the audience closer to the action than is possible in a large auditorium, with characters often entering, exiting, and even playing scenes in the aisles, making the production feel at times like “Oklahoma! in-the-(sur)round.”  The loss of a standard proscenium set design is felt, especially in a musical like Oklahoma! where one is accustomed to seeing row upon row of corn fields “as high as an elephant’s eye” against a panoramic big sky backdrop.  Also, prerecorded tracks cannot compete with the thrill of a live CLO-sized orchestra.  Still, with performances as strong as those on the Glendale stage, this Oklahoma! is well worth seeing.

Standley’s background as a leading man in both musicals (Lancelot in Camelot, El Gallo in The Fantasticks) and straight plays (Starbuck in The Rainmaker, Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire) makes him a fine choice for Curly, combining melodious singing with excellent acting chops. As Laurey, the luminous Lundstedt follows her GCT starring roles in The Scarlet Pimpernel and Phantom with her best work yet.  Standley and Lundstedt* have palpable stage chemistry in Curly and Laurey’s “I’m pretending that I hate you but you know I really love you” flirtation scenes, and when the incandescent blonde joins her exquisite soprano with Standley’s resonant baritone in “People Will Say We’re In Love,” the results are memorable indeed.

Stoten is one of the best Juds ever, the combination of menacing sex appeal and vocal prowess a potent one.  Keef’s Will is irresistible, the handsome 6-footer proving himself an exciting, funny, charismatic triple-threat of the first order.  Myers is a bubbly delight as Ado Annie and Rittenhouse’s crusty charm makes her a fine choice for Aunt Eller.  As peddler Ali Hakim, Michaels is so comically brilliant that one wishes he were age-appropriate for the role.

Director Martin Lang brings out the best in his performers, highlighted by Curly and Laurey’s romantic flirtation, the hilarious love triangle of Ado Annie, Will, and Ali Hakim, and the subtle blend of danger and chuckles in Curly’s scene with Judd and their duet “Poor Jud Is Dead.”

Orlando Alexander’s choreography fills the compact GCT stage with lively dancing feet, particularly those of Keef and the topnotch male ensemble (Drew Foronda, Brandon Heitkamp, Russ Hobbie, Kevin Holmquist, and Paul Reid) doing some show-stopping two-stepping in “Kansas City.”  In a daring but successful switch, Alexander has Lundstedt and Standley doing their own dancing in “Dream Sequence/Out Of My Dreams” instead of bringing in Laurey and Curly’s “dance doubles” and it works wonders.  (In these days of triple threat musical theater stars, why isn’t this done more often?) The dream sequence itself makes for a powerful Act One finale, with the talented female ensemble (Ashley Adkins, Laurie Fedor, Adia Joelle, Jessie Mann, Bridget Pugliese, and Angela Raile) morphing from Laurey’s girlfriends to the sexy dance hall girls she imagines in her fevered dream. Act Two is highlighted by the full-cast hoedown celebration of “The Farmer And The Cowman.”

Supporting roles are handled entertainingly by Alex Rose Wiesel (whose Gertie Cummings laugh is the hysterical whinny of a filly high on a mixture of speed and helium), and the fatherly trio of Kyle Kelly (Andrew Carnes), Richard Leppig (Cord Elam), and Don Woodruff.

Steven Applegate deserves thumbs up for his musical direction, though girl chorus harmonies could be made more precise in “Out Of My Dreams.” Also, song performances seem ever so occasionally off the beat, leading me to wonder how audible the audio track is to the cast. Tim Dietlein’s lighting is varied and effective, particularly in dream sequences, and his set design nicely suggests the show’s various locals, with major thumbs up for Judd’s smokehouse, assembled quickly in the dark almost as if by magic. Costumes by Angela Wood and the  Costume Shoppe couldn’t be better.

At 66 years of age, Oklahoma! remains as great a show as ever. Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein oeuvre, it is the most timeless, one which continues to entertain every bit as much as today’s contemporary Broadway hits.  Glendale Centre Theatre’s production is sure to provide longtime theatergoers a welcome return visit to the Panhandle State and will prove to the younger generation that oldies even as venerable as Oklahoma! can be goodies too.

*Memo to CLOs. Take heed of the name Heather Lundstedt for your next Rodgers & Hammerstein production.

Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale. 

–Steven Stanley
May 27, 2009
                                                                   Photo: Tim Dietlein

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