Los Angeles has been treating Rodgers And Hammerstein’s Oklahoma to quite a fabulous extended 65th Anniversary party these past two years, with three major productions already reviewed on these pages. It’s now Civic Light Opera Of South Bay Cities’ turn to work its musical magic on R&H’s very first collaboration, and given their illustrious track record, it’s no surprise that this Stephanie A. Coltrin-directed revival is an all-around winner, precisely the kind of production an Oklahoma!-caliber classic deserves.

It may come as somewhat of a surprise to modern audiences that of the entire Rodgers and Hammerstein musical theater oeuvre, their first and oldest collaboration, Oklahoma!, remains their least dated. To 21st Century eyes, Carousel’s hero Billy Bigalow may come across as an abusive husband, and we may feel like scratching our heads when South Pacific’s Nellie breaks off her engagement to Emile simply upon learning that the two Eurasian children he is raising are his own, by his Polynesian first wife. In The King And I, it’s no longer quite as easy as before to sympathize with Mrs. Anna’s efforts to “educate” the King of Siam in the ways of the West.  There is, however, nothing dated about either Oklahoma!’s characters or its story.  That’s not to say that the later R&H musicals are anything less than classics.  It just that Oklahoma! better than any others seems to have stood the test of time.

It was also a truly revolutionary show— from its very first musical number.

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 farmwoman, who continues her churning.

1943 Broadway audiences must 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 storytelling (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.

The majority of Oklahoma!’s story unfolds over the course of a single “beautiful day,” the day of the box social dance. As Curly (Damon Kirsche) and Laurey (Sarah Bermudez) 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 (Annie V. Ramsey) to say “No” to either her beau Will Parker (Karl Warden), or the supposedly Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Nathan Holland). Still, the introduction of the dark and dangerous Jud Fry (Sam Zeller), 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.

CLOSBC’s production features some of the finest musical theater talent Southern California has to offer, beginning with Kirsche, playing engagingly against his customary image. Unlike the many elegant, sophisticated roles in Kirsche’s repertoire (Professor Higgens and Freddy in My Fair Lady, Carl Magnus in A Little Night Music, etc.), Oklahoma!’s Curly allows the handsome, golden-voiced performer to show of an “aw shucks” side not seen before, resulting in an entirely winning performance. Laurey here is the captivating Bermudez, a staple of San Diego area musical theater making a memorable L.A. debut as the object of Curly’s not quite hidden affection.  Saucy, sweet, and girl-next-door sexy, the raven-tressed Bermudez sings gorgeously, has great chemistry with Kirsche, and a classic musical theater star quality that should lead to many more L.A. leading roles.

Annie V. Ramsey gets the plum supporting role of “Cain’t Say No” Ado Annie, and runs with it, her Olive Oyl voice and gawky charm making her a knockout in the role. Diane Vincent puts her own distinctive stamp on Aunt Eller, not at all the crusty old maid of the 1955 film classic but a still vibrant woman who can flirt and kick up her heels with the best of the young fillies.  Gary Lee Reed makes for a fine Andrew Carnes, a man with amusingly mixed feelings about seeing his daughter Ado Annie legally wed.  As Persian peddler Ali Hakim, the wonderful Holland milks every possible laugh from the role, but truth be told, the role calls for an under-40 actor to be  believable competition for Annie’s other, 20something suitor.

Two performances in particular stand out as among the very finest of all four Oklahoma!’s reviewed here. The terrific Warden emerges from the ensemble in a breakout performance as Ado Annie’s Will Parker, one which showcases the performer’s Broadway-caliber dancing, with some aah-inspiring acrobatics thrown in for good measure.  Demonstrating a first-rate singing voice and considerable charm as an actor, Warden is the very definition of a triple-threat talent.  Of even greater note is Zeller’s amazing work as Jud. Playing the role last October in FCLO’s production, Zeller already had Jud’s menace down pat. Here, under Coltrin’s superb direction, the actor digs deep into Jud Fry’s profoundly troubled soul and warped sexual longings to create a breathtaking performance. His rendition of “Lonely Room” and a scene in which Jud breaks down sobbing (new to this production) are unforgettable.

CLOSBC bills this production as the 2003 Broadway revival version, one which had originated in London in 1998 under the direction of Trevor Nunn. The dark shadows Nunn added to Oklahoma!’s sunshine can be seen here in Redondo Beach, particularly in Zeller’s stunning performance.  On the other hand, though the overture has been omitted as it was six years ago on Broadway, CLOSBC’s Oklahoma! sticks to a traditional set design and features the customary “Dream Laurey” and “Dream Curly” in the Act One finale “Dream Ballet.” (Broadway’s Laurey and Curly did their own dancing, which I’ve come to prefer.)

This is a minor quibble, however, next to the overall brilliance of Karen Nowicki’s dance moves, the most thrilling I’ve seen yet from this fine L.A. choreographer. Nowicki also designed the dances for FCLO’s excellent production last fall, but here she rises to new levels, perhaps inspired by CLOSBC’s especially gifted ensemble: Jeremy Bernard, Dane Biren, Michelle (Meki) Blackwell, Brittany Blossom, Leland Burnett (Ike Skidmore), Craig Donnelly, Jasmine Ejan, Brad Fitzgerald, Corina Gill (Dream Laurey) Jessica Gisin (debuting her own delicious take on Gertie Cummings’ laugh), Juan Guillen, Rhett Guter, Jenny Rose Hobbs-Hutzler, Trevor Krahl, Barbie Linberg, William Loufik, StageSceneLA’s Musical Discovery Of The Year Heather Lundstedt, Melissa Mitchell, Mike A. Motroni, Jo Patrick (Dream Curly) Chuck Pellitier (Cord Elam), Tiffany Renee Reid, and Karie Seasock. These are cowboys (and cowgirls) who can dance with Broadway’s best, and amply able to meet the choreographic challenges Nowicki throws their way. Gill and Patrick in particular dance gorgeously in the dream ballet.

Musical director Alby Potts conducts a sensational 16-piece orchestra with his accustomed expertise.  D.R. Cole’s set design has the 1940s look promised by CLOSBC’s Executive Director James A. Blackman, III in his opening remarks, with beautifully painted scrim backdrops lit to Technicolor perfection by Darrell J. Clark.  Christa Armendariz’s costumes are multi-hued gems as well.  John Feinstein’s sound design is impeccable as always.

Those who’ve studiously avoided Oklahoma! thinking it dated or dull are in for a very pleasant surprise should they be persuaded to see CLOSBC’s splendid revival. Those, like myself, who’ve learned to love this Rodgers And Hammerstein classic will find special pleasure in the many aspects in which this production distinguishes itself from those before it.  In fact, anyone who treasures American musical theater will find a great deal to cheer about down in Redondo Beach.  This Oklahoma! is absolutely A-OK!.

CLO of South Bay Cities, Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Boulevard, Redondo Beach.

–Steven Stanley
September 22, 2009
                                                                     Photos: Alysa Brennan

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