Seventy years old has never seemed as fresh and alive and young as it does in Musical Theatre West’s 70th Anniversary revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, about as perfect a production of this R&H classic as any musical theater lover could possibly wish for.
As for just how revolutionary this very first Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein collaboration was when it made its Broadway debut in 1943, remember that back then a “musical comedy” still meant chorus girls, jokes, and a bright and bouncy opening production number.
The Oklahoma! revolution begins from the final notes of its Overture, as the curtain rises on a middle-aged woman sitting alone on stage churning butter in front of a country farmhouse, her long cotton dress telling 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 a shock WWII Broadway audiences must have registered at Oklahoma!’s opening moments, for never before had a musical started so quietly. And though it was true that a handful of musicals had told serious stories before and integrated songs into their storytelling (most notably 1927’s Show Boat), Oklahoma! was, and is to this day, the first truly 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 (Bryant Martin) and Laurey (Madison Claire Parks) 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 (Teya Patt) to say “No” to either her beau Will Parker (Luke Hawkins), or the Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Amin El Gamal). Still, the introduction of the dark and dangerous Jud Fry (Christopher Newell), who has his own twisted designs on Laurey, 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, especially when helmed by a director who truly understands the continuing power and relevance of Hammerstein’s timeless book, based on Lynn Riggs’ play Green Grow The Lilacs, as complemented by Rodgers’ unforgettable melodies and Hammerstein’s plot-propelling lyrics.
Broadway star Davis Gaines is just such a creative force in what is, astonishingly, his directorial debut.
It helps, of course, that Gaines has assembled a Broadway-caliber cast who not only sing and dance to perfection, but dig deep to find the heart and soul of each iconic character, but these performances have surely been guided by the director’s inspired hand.
Gaines has cast young, i.e. the actual age of Oklahoma’s late-teens/early-20s protagonists and not the 30/40somethings that often play Curly, Laurey, Will, and Ado Annie … and hallelujah for that.
Parks, the production’s incandescent Laurey, may be the descendant of Hollywood royalty (her grandparents were Betty “On The Town” Garrett and Larry “The Jolson Story” Parks), but even without such stellar forbears, the just-turned-17 leading lady is both a spectacular opera-trained singer with an exquisite trace of vibrato and an actress of grace, power, and depth, making it easy to understand why our hero would choose Laurey over the other town beauties, each of whom must be pining over a cowpoke as handsome, charming, and velvet-voiced as L.A. newcomer Martin’s irresistible Curly.
Hawkins may be the reigning Mr. New York in real life, but his Will Parker could easily win the equivalent Oklahoma title for his infectious grin and nimble dance moves, if not for IQ points. The object of Hawkins’ affection is the one-and-only Patt, reinventing Ado Annie with enough man-hungry glee and huggable charm to erase memories of other Annies who’ve preceded her.
Two other roles that benefit from age-appropriate casting are the sexually repressed Jud Fry, played by a terrific Newell with equal parts menace and poignancy and a rich baritone that makes “Lonely Room” one of the evening’s most powerful solos; and peddler man Ali Hakim, played by a droll, scene-stealing (and authentically Middle Eastern, albeit Egyptian-American) Amin El Gamal, whose Persian Goodbye is one for the record books: Funniest and Most Original Persian Goodbye ever.
Saundra McClain’s fierce and feisty Aunt Eller and Stephen Reynolds’ folksy Andrew Carnes are winners too, and Hannah Simmons gives Gertie Cummings a cackle to remember.
Equally revolutionary at the time of Oklahoma!’s debut was Agnes de Mille’s choreography, which like R&H’s songs emerged organically from the plot—Will’s giddy, two-stepping salute to the many delights of “Kansas City”; Laurey and her girlfriends’ jaunty “Many A New Day”; the energetic, competitive dance-off between “The Farmer And The Cowman”; and most revolutionary of all, de Mille’s “Dream Ballet,” one in which all of Laurey’s hopes, fears, and desires came to vivid, groundbreaking life.
Not content to mimic de Mille’s trademark “Americana” style, Los Angeles’s very own choreographic genius Lee Martino challenges her dancers with moves which blend grace and athleticism in equal measure, choreography as thrillingly complex and richly rewarding as any you’ll see by whoever might be today’s Broadway darlings.
Martino is blessed by an ensemble of triple threats whose every move dazzles: Josh Christoff (Ike Skidmore), Kaylen Danz (Ellen), Chris Duir (Slim), Steve Ewing, Jenna Gillespie (Butter Mae), Christopher Hamby (Fred), Jacob Haren, Blair Hollingsworth (Virginia), Will Huse (Cord Elam), Ashley Matthews (Anna Mae), Madison Mitchell (Kate), Whitney Muscato, Ariel Neydavoud, Ramone Owens (Joe), Jane Papageorge (Vivian), Allison Paraiso (Julipp), Stacey Renee Parker (Susie), Dylan Pass, Katya Preiser (Kitty), Simmons, Michael Starr (Tom), dance and fight captain Matthew J. Vargo, Carly Wielstein (Dalilah), and Louis Williams. Ewing and Preiser deserve special mention for their exquisite Dream Curly and Dream Laurey, and last-minute cast replacement Williams for learning Martino’s dance moves in a miraculous two days.
MTW’s Oklahoma! has been cast “non-traditionally” this time round, meaning that a number of roles which traditionally would have gone to Caucasians have been assigned to performers of color, an approach which may disconcert some theatergoers (at least at first), but one which allows actors the caliber of McClain to play roles they might not traditionally have been cast in. In fact, if I were to find any fault in MTW’s colorblind casting of Oklahoma! is that it does not go far enough. All four leading players are white, and even greater diversity in the ensemble would have made this experiment in non-traditional casting even more successful. In any case, it is an experiment that should soon be repeated.
This Oklahoma! looks and sounds absolutely gorgeous. Musical director Dennis Castellano not only conducts the superb pit orchestra but elicits magnificent vocal performances from the entire cast, and tell me when the last time was that you saw a musical in which everyone sang in his or her “legit” voice, an overall effect made even richer by Julie Ferrin’s expert sound design.
Anthony Ward’s Big Sky Oklahoma scenic design is visually stunning, particularly as lit ever so vividly by Jean-Yves Tessier, and costume designer Jessica Olson couldn’t have come up with finer western finery for her cast to wear. Fight choreographer Ken Merckx gives the cowboys and farmers some realistic fisticuffs to duke it out with. Kevin Clowes is technical director, Mary Ritenhour ASM/production manager, and Vernon Willet stage manager.
Anyone who’s ever seen a less than outstanding production of Oklahoma! owes it to him or herself to see Rodgers & Hammerstein’s first masterpiece done right. As staged by Davis Gaines and performed by a couldn’t-be-better cast, Musical Theatre West’s 70th Anniversary revival does it right indeed. It is not to be missed.
Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.
February 16, 2013