Director-choreographer Dan Mojica and an exciting young cast offer Welk Theatre San Diego audiences an Oklahoma! certain to delight both blue-haired Welk regulars and the Glee generation of its late teens-early 20s ensemble, sixteen talented performers who enrich the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic with a freshness and life belying its 71 years of age.
After all, when Oklahoma! made its mid-WW2 Broadway debut, a “musical comedy” still meant chorus girls, jokes, and a bright and bouncy opening production number.
Not so this first Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein collaboration, whose musical theater revolution begins with the final notes of its “Overture,” the stage occupied not by a bevy of spangled chorines and tuxedoed chorus boys but by a lone middle-aged woman churning butter in front of a country farmhouse. 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.
Meet our hero Curly, no showbiz hoofer like Anything Goes’ Billy Crocker but an honest-to-goodness cowpoke who probably never did a ball-step-change in his life nor has any idea what kind of kick you might get from champagne.
What a shock Broadway audiences must have registered at Oklahoma!’s opening moments, for never before had a musical got 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. Songs take the place of dialog, thereby not only advancing plot but providing audiences with one Hit Parade favorite after another, a model which continues in the 21st Century albeit minus those chart-topping hits.
The majority of Oklahoma!’s story unfolds over the course of a single “beautiful day,” the day of the box social dance. As Curly (Allen Everman) and Laurey (Kailey O’Donnell) exchange barbed words, their flirtatious undertone makes it clear that these two independent souls 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,” since like Carousel’s Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow two years later, this Rodgers & Hammerstein couple only allow themselves to sing around and not about the love they so obviously feel for each other.
Though not a “musical comedy” in the pre-1943 sense, Oklahoma! does have its share of comic relief in scenes revolving around the inability of budding teen vixen Ado Annie (Sydney Blair) to say “No” to either her beau Will Parker (Andrew J. Koslow) or the Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Ariel Neydavoud) traveling from town to town selling his exotic wares.
Later, the introduction of the dangerously twisted Jud Fry (Will Huse), who has his own perverted 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 created only yesterday, book writer Hammerstein having taken Lynn Riggs’ play Green Grow The Lilacs and complemented it with Rodgers’ unforgettable melodies and his own’s plot-propelling lyrics.
Though my preference since seeing the 2002 Trevor Nunn/Susan Stroman Broadway revival version has been for an Oklahoma! that emphasizes the musical’s darker elements, particularly as regards Laurey’s conflicted sexual longings, Mojica’s lighter, brighter approach is likely to prove a more appropriate fit with the older and family audiences the Welk tends to attract, and allows for some delightful, more comedic-than-usual takes on favorite characters, Aunt Eller, Ali Hakim, and Ado Annie’s pa Andrew Carnes in particular.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfectly cast Curly than Everman, Oklahoma!’s all-American cowboy-next-door come to charismatic life, and following Everman’s star turns as Harold Hill in The Music Man and most recently as Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie, his irresistible Curly makes it three quintessential (albeit thoroughly distinct) American Musical Theater leads in a row—and the one which best allows the Best Lead Actor Scenie winner to show off some golden pipes as well.
The lovely O’Donnell gives us a Laurey whose confusion about whether to admit to her obvious feelings for Curly are more those of a typical teenage prairie girl than the young woman tormented by darker desires we’ve seen in recent revivals, but the approach suits Mojica’s take on Oklahoma! In addition, O’Donnell has terrific stage presence and abundant charm, and the pop-meet-legit soprano with which she sings “Many A New Day,” “People Will Say We’re In Love,” and “Out Of My Dreams” couldn’t be more gorgeous.
If only O’Donnell’s performance didn’t have to compete with a platinum Disney Princess wig plopped high atop her head, one which hides the actress’s unique beauty (and her own stunning russet locks) with poofy blonde bangs and cascades of curls that belie the reality of a young woman sharing the burdens of running a farm with an unmarried aunt and nearly sabotage O’Donnell’s efforts at creating a real, three-dimensional character.
Supporting performers offer all-around sparkling and often quite original takes on characters we’ve seen again and again.
Koslow’s infectiously winning Will Parker isn’t nearly the dumb hick he’s been portrayed as before but merely perhaps a tad too naïve for his own good, and boy can this young triple-threat dance.
Blair, a StageSceneLA favorite since her USC days, gets her best role in years, and simply could not make for a more delightful Ado Annie, perky, bubbly, and downright adorable.
Neydavoud and Huse graduate from the ensemble of Musical Theatre West’s 2013 Oklahoma! revival to major featured roles, the duo giving us a pair of absolutely marvelous, night-and-day different creations, Neydavoud proving a scene-stealing comedic treat as peddler Ali Hakim and Huse embodying a Jud Fry almost physically deformed by the devils eating at his insides, with special snaps for the gorgeous baritone he shows off in “Lonely Room.”
The older generation is represented by two of SoCal’s most consistently original character actors—Robin LaValley as arguably the feistiest, funniest Aunt Eller on record and RC Sands taking the throw-away role of Andrew Carnes and making his every moment onstage a keeper.
One of the most intimate Oklahoma!s you’re likely ever to have seen, the Welk revival takes the original Broadway cast’s 56 members and the 2002 revival’s 35 and whittles them down to a mere 16, an approach which not only fits the Welk’s smaller stage, but allows each of Oklahoma!s eight ensemble players to capture audience attention as is rarely the case.
Nicole Renee Chapman, Aubrey Elson, Emily Gordon, Arielle Meads, Matthew Naegeli, Dylan Mulvaney, Jacob Narcy, and Benjamin Read sing and dance to perfection, and this reviewer has the sense that each has created a back story for his or her character, with Chapman’s laugh-cursed Gertie Cummings a particular delight.
Choreographer Mojica brings out the best in his entire cast, in foot-stomping song-and-dance numbers like “Kansas City” (a Koslow showcase), “Many A New Day,” and “The Farmer And The Cowman.”
The revolutionary “Dream Ballet,” though somewhat trimmed, gives everyone a chance to dazzle including Everman’s Curly, who actually gets to do his own dancing this time round. In fact, Mojica’s decision to have only Laurey doubled in dream form proves inspired, since it makes better sense for Laurey to see her “Dream Self” (Meads, exquisitely en pointe) dancing with the real Curly along the others in her life than to imagine a “Dream Curly” but not a “Dream Jud,” etc. (Had Mojica kept Laurey as an onstage observer throughout her dream, this new approach would work even better.)
Musical director Justin Gray elicits excellent vocals from his cast, and the pit orchestra he conducts (Gray on piano, Mike Masessa on drums/percussion, Amy Kalal on reeds, and Cathy Gray on violin) sounds surprisingly rich for a mere four musicians.
Jennifer Edwards scores high marks for her vivid lighting design, Patrick Hoyny for his crystal-clear sound design, scenic designer Doug Davis for his colorful set, Janet Pitcher for her costume design (costumes provided by The Theatre Company, Upland), and Beverly and Robert George for their period props.
Oklahoma! is produced for The Welk Theatre by theater manager Joshua Carr. Edwards is assistant theater manager.
In a season that has also included memorable revivals of Anything Goes and Grease, Oklahoma! provides Welk audiences with yet another crowd-pleaser while offering sixteen sensational SoCal musical theater performers a chance to shine brightly under the Oklahoma! sun and the Escondido moon.
The Welk Theatre, 8860 Lawrence Welk Dr, Escondido.
August 23, 2104
Photos: Ken Jacques