Dance reigns supreme in Cabrillo Music Theatre’s rousing revival of the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II classic Oklahoma!, billed as “The Musical That Reinvented American Musical Theatre,” a phrase that still rings true nearly three-quarters of a century after it revolutionized Broadway.
As for just how groundbreaking 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 to this day remains, 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 (Dan Callaway) and Laurey (Callandra Olivia) 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,” 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 (Melanie Mockobey) to say “No” to either her beau Will Parker (Josh Switzer) or the Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Damon Kirsche) traveling from town to town selling his exotic wares.
Later, the introduction of the dark and dangerous Jud Fry (Tim Campbell), 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.
Lewis Wilkenfeld’s assured direction underlines the 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.
Still, if there’s anything folks will be raving about in Cabrillo’s Oklahoma!, it is John Charron’s choreography, no Agnes de Mille retread but a series of thrillingly original production numbers, including the most excitingly high-energy “Kansas City” you will likely ever see. (The a cappella “stomp break” earns its own ovation.) Add to that “Many A New Day” and “The Farmer And The Cowman,” each more exciting than the other, and a mesmerizing “Dream Ballet” featuring some gorgeous solo dancing by Brittany Bentley and Michael McArthur as Dream Laurey and Dream Curly and you have an Oklahoma! to shout about.
Callaway and Olivia have the cornfed good looks and legit vocal chops to bring Curly and Laurey to Midwest life in their duets of “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and “People Will Say We’re In Love.”
Kirsche reinvents Ali Hakim to pseudo-Persion perfection, making the peddler lothario an ever so handsome and unexpectedly charming alternative to Will, brought to irresistible life by a sensational Switzer, singing and dancing up a storm opposite a deliciously ditzy Mockobey as Ado Annie.
Campbell’s lean-and-hungry Jud is as darkly menacing as Jud Frys get, in addition to displaying an operatic bass that makes “Lonely Room” a dramatic showstopper.
As for the “older folk,” Southland treasure Dynell Leigh makes for a fabulously feisty Aunt Eller, with David Gilchrist (Carnes), Ronald Rezac (Cord Elam), and Richard Storrs (Ike) providing expert support.
The production’s gifted young dance ensemble execute Charron’s thrillingly challenging choreography like Broadway pros, meriting not only their own standing ovation but individual character names as well. They are Claire Adams (Gertie), Nichole Beeks (Carra Lee), Bentley (Essie Lou), Kylie Brunngraber (Savannah), Amanda Carr (Lillian), Jean-Luc Cavnar (Atticus), Paul Crish (Billy-Bob), Maggie Darago (Suzie), Cedric Dodd (Willie-Joe Waters), Rebecca Fondiler (Clara), Kevin Gilmond (Big Tom), Timothy Hearl (Cletus), Kurt Kemper (Oren, Will Parker understudy), Amy Lenhardt (Margaret), Derek A. Lewis (Rex), Abby Jo Luquette (Dallas), Andrew Mackin (Thatcher), Renni Anthony Magee (Huck), Isabella Mancuso (April), Rachel McLaughlan (Kate), Anne Montavon (Ivonna), Chet Norment (Elmer), Nic Olsen (Fred), Carlye Porrazzo (Shirley Mae), Rile Reavis (Ellis Plunket), Juliana Saenz (Daisy), Katherine Steele (Vivian), Antonia Vivino (Winnie), Alyssa Weldon (Sawyer), and Kendyl Yokoyama (Mildred “Millie” Mae). (Special snaps to Adams’ whinny of a Gertie laugh.)
Kabrillo Kids Autumn Jessel, Caroline Loper, Calista Loter, Nathaniel Mark, Francine Miller, Elianna Scott, Marcello Silva, Ashley Kiele Thomas, Taylor Thomas, and Lily Victoria Thompson, diminutive charmers each and every one, complete Oklahoma!’s cast of fifty-plus.
That’s right. With over fifty triple-threats filling the Fred Kavli stage, Cabrillo Music Theatre’s Oklahoma! is the kind of big-cast musical “they don’t make anymore,” creating with its more than four dozen performers a sense of authentic community most Oklahoma!s can only suggest.
Cabrillo’s Oklahoma! looks and sounds absolutely gorgeous. Musical director Brian P. Kennedy not only conducts a superb pit orchestra but elicits magnificent vocal performances from the entire cast, and when was the last time you saw a musical in which everyone sang “legit,” voices made even richer by sound designer Jonathan Burke’s expert mix.
The Music And Theatre Company’s striking Big Sky Oklahoma sets and props, The Theatre Company’s colorful country-western costumes, and FCLO Music Theatre’s “Dream Ballet” finery are all vividly lit by Ryan Rand. Cassie Russek gets top marks for her hair and makeup, though Olivia’s Laurey would benefit from a more natural do than the bouffant platinum mane she’s been given, especially since almost everyone else wears her own hair.
Additional program credits go to Kai Chubb (assistant choreographer), Christine Gibson (costume design), Alex Choate (prop design), John Calder III (production stage manager), Rebecca Esquivel (assistant stage manager), Gary Mintz (technical director), and Char Brister (marketing consultant).
With its three-hour running time, Oklahoma! gives ticket holders full bang for their bucks, and with John Charron’s choreography providing one breathtaking thrill after another, Cabrillo Music Theatre treats its audiences to bang after bang after explosive bang.
Cabrillo Music Theatre, Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thousand Oaks.
July 17, 2105
Photos: Ed Krieger