Musical Theatre Of Los Angeles follows its much praised downsizings of Ragtime The Musical, West Side Story, and Cabaret with one of its biggest challenges yet, a 99-seat production of Rodgers And Hammerstein’s very first collaboration—1943’s Oklahoma!

The challenge here is quite a different one from MTLA’s previous offerings—how to make one of the most produced shows in musical theater history seem fresh and new.

Fortunately for those involved, Oklahoma! is hardly the creaky old chestnut some have made it out to be, but instead R&H’s most timeless creation. There’s nothing dated about Oklahoma! except perhaps for people’s perceptions of it.

Director Robert Marra has conceived this Oklahoma! as if it were a brand new show, beginning with the casting process. With the exception of Oklahoma!’s two older characters, Aunt Eller and Andrew Carnes, virtually the entire company appear to be in their twenties or younger, precisely the age these characters would have been in Oklahoma circa 1906.

Imagine that! A Laurie who could actually be the eighteen-year-old Hammerstein’s book suggests her to be, an Ado Annie who looks like someone who only last year began to fill out, a Curly and a Will who are age-appropriate for their roles and for their love interests, and even a Jud Fry who looks scarcely into his twenties. This alone is nigh on to revolutionary for a non-school production.

Even Aunt Eller looks 40ish at most, which adds a bit of male-female chemistry to Oklahoma!’s revolutionary (there’s that word again) chorus girl-free opening number, just an Oklahoma cowpoke serenading Laurey’s still youthful aunt with “Oh What A Beautiful Morning.”

Director/musical stager Marra and choreographer Tania Possick have added personal touches from the get-go. As Curly describes “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” to Aunt Eller, watch the way a seated stage-right Laurey’s feigned disinterest cracks despite her best intentions. Watch how Curly and Laurey move almost imperceptibly into a kind of foxtrot as Curly sings “Don’t dance all night with me till the stars fade from above” in “People Will Say We’re In Love.” Watch how the big dance number “Kansas City” seems to be thought up almost on the spot by a Will Parker trying to impress the townsfolk with the dances he remembers from his trip to the big city. Only the sudden appearance in the “Out Of My Dreams” ballet of three teenage ballerinas we’ve never seen before and never see again seems out of place in this otherwise organic sequence. On the plus side, how exciting it is to have the “real” Laurey and Curly do their own dancing instead of the traditional dream doubles.

Marra has made terrific casting choices, including many exciting discoveries for this reviewer.

Native Oklahoman Travis Dixon, whose previous credits include a number of comic sidekick roles (including Will Parker) makes for a fine, charismatic, effortlessly masculine Curly. The exceedingly lovely Jean Altadel not only looks like the pretty Oklahoma farm girl Laurey is, but sings angelically and has great chemistry with Dixon. Ryan Oboza, besides being one of the cutest Will Parkers on record, radiates country charm and proves himself a song and dance whiz in the role. In addition to her priceless facial reactions and frisky body lingo, Jillian Gomez’s Ado Annie is so adorably (and convincingly) teenaged that one wonders why the role is so often cast way too old. Tall, dark, and handsome, lanky Jay Rincon is night and day different from most any Jud Fry you’ve seen before, but very effective as a young man whose outsider status has made him the town pariah and whose sexual frustration has warped him almost beyond repair. Matthew Dorio is funny indeed as self-declared Persian peddler Ali Hakim, Maura Smith is quite wonderful as Aunt Eller, Suzanne Mayes’ Gertie has a laugh that never fails as a laugh-getter, and James Petrillo has many good moments as Andrew Carnes. These talented performers may not have light opera voices, but vocally they all acquit themselves quite nicely indeed.

The Oklahoma townsfolk—Clay Dzygun, Kristen Heitman, Greg Hardash, Janet Huey, Catherine Hwang, James Keene, Kate Ponzio, and Dustin Thompson—are a talented bunch. My quibbles about the teen trio who pop up inexplicably in Laurey’s dream are no reflection on the talents of Paulina Brancone, Betsy Uhler, and Carmen Xoluv.

As previously mentioned, choreographer Possick’s seemingly spur-of-the-moment dance steps in “Kansas City” are a total delight. Most of the dream ballet works quite well, particularly the dance hall girl fantasy. (I’d like to see greater emphasis put on the attraction this Laurey feels for this particular Jud. Instead of the 95% repulsion/5% attraction the ballet gives us now, how about 75/25?) “The Farmer And The Cowman” and the show’s title song make for rousing second act production numbers.

Just as he did in previous MTLA productions of Ragtime and West Side Story, Greg Haake does fine work as musical director, conducting the several-piece live orchestra (which hits a few off notes but acquits itself competently for the most part).

Check out the sepia-toned headshots in the Met Theatre lobby and you’ll have some idea of this Oklahoma!’s design concept. Gone are the Technicolor hues one usually associates with an Oklahoma! costume or set design. MTLA’s Oklahoma! has much of the look of old sepia snapshots of the early 20th Century Great Plains thanks to costume designer Ann McMahan, scenic designer Craig Pavilionis, and lighting designer Derrick McDaniel. Design whiz Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski is sound designer. Heidi Estrada is stage manager. Oklahoma!’s executive producer is Jorge Hernandez. Bonnie McMahan, Mike Abramson, and Brooke Seguin are producers.

Even if you’ve seen a bunch of Oklahoma!s (as has this reviewer), MTLA’s small stage revival is well worth a look-see. It serves as a reminder of just how truly great—and timeless—this American classic is, and introduces a number of Southern California musical theater talents whose names we will surely be seeing again. This mini-Oklahoma! is A-OK!

MET Theatre at 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
June 24, 2010
Photos: Tina Babajanians

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