Theatricum Botanicum revives a Golden-Era theatrical gem in a production worth a whole heap of whoopin’ and hollerin’ … but before I go ahead and name it, here’s a question for all you theater lovers out there.
What Broadway show has cowpoke Curly fallin’ for farm gal Laurey, Laurey’s feisty Aunt Eller rootin’ for the twosome to tie the knot, a dirty varmint of a hired hand doin’ his darndest to git Laurey for his own, and a gal named Ado Annie and a Middle Eastern peddler hangin’ ’round to sweeten up the mix?
Now before you go answering with a “Duh” (and get buzzed off Jeopardy), let me add that there’s no Will Parker in sight, Ado Annie doesn’t even bring up the subject of whether she can or “cain’t say ‘No,’” and the show in question ran a mere 63 performances on Broadway back in 1931 and not the 2212 chalked up by a certain Rodgers and Hammerstein musical between ’43 and ’48.
The answer, as any true Oklahoma! aficionado can tell you, must be Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow The Lilacs, a play-with-music now getting a rarer-than-rare revival under the Topanga stars at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in a production no Oklahoma! buff (or classic theater lover for that matter) will want to miss.
The basic plot remains pretty much the same. You’ve got Curly and Laurey (Jeff Wiesen and Willow Geer) insisting they don’t care a hoot about each other when it’s perfectly obvious that they do. You’ve got filthy (in both body and mind) Jud Fry (Steven B. Green) lurking and leering after Laurey, though here he’s called Jeeter. (My guess is that Rodgers & Hammerstein went with the one-syllable moniker for reasons of rhythm and rhyme, since “Pore Jeter Is Daid” doesn’t quite have the right ring about it.)
And just like Oklahoma!’s “Territory Folks,” the Green Grow The Lilacs bunch are as likely to burst into song as they are to shoot the breeze, though here they’re warbling to traditional ditties (the title song, “Skip To My Lou,” ”Down In The Valley,” etc.) that don’t charge royalties (or advance the plot as Oklahoma!’s do) .
Theatricum’s Green Grow The Lilacs succeeds on many levels, not the least of which is illustrating the strength of R&H’s source material. Much of Hammerstein’s dialog is straight out of Riggs, including gems like Curly’s proud-as-punch “I’m handsome, ain’t I? And bow-legged from the saddle fer God knows how long,” provoking Aunt Eller’s snappy rejoinder, “Couldn’t stop a pig in the road,” and Laurey’s dismissive yet obviously interested “Oh! Thought you was somebody” when Curly comes around. And any Oklahoma! Laurey would do well to read Green Grow for the back story Riggs’ gives his heroine, one that proves her to be far more than the vapid ingénue she sometimes gets portrayed as.
Green Grow The Lilacs proves an equally fascinating illustration of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s genius at turning dialog into song (Curly’s “And this yere rig has got four fine side-curtains, case of a rain. And Isinglass winders to look out of!”) and inventing ways to suggest in song (“People Will Say We’re In Love”) emotions unspoken in Riggs’ script.
And what a brilliant stroke it was for R&H to add Will Parker (mentioned only in passing in GGTL) to the Oklahoma! mix, back from “Kansas City” to show off Agnes de Mille’s high-kicking choreography and give Ado Annie the romantic triangle with Ali Hakim (who doesn’t even get a name in Green Grow) that provides Oklahoma! with its surefire B plot.
But I digress.
Green Grow The Lilacs stands quite nicely on its own, thank you very much, a timeless piece of early 20th-century Americana, and though it could stand a twenty-minute trim, its dialog-heavy scenes add depth to Oscar Hammerstein’s book.
Directed with savvy and spark by Botanicum legend Ellen Geer, Green Grow The Lilacs is performed by a splendid cast of principals (who can strum as well as they can sing) and a stageful of townsfolk who provide local color whenever needed.
Wiesen makes for as charming and charismatic a Curly as Curlys get, and is there any role the divinely versatile Willow Geer can’t play? (Her Laurey is as sexy and sassy as any Curly could wish for.)
I’ve never seen a better Aunt Eller than Marshall’s (and I’ve seen Oklahoma! a grand total of eleven times on stage), every bit as colorful as the most colorful of Del Shores’ Sordid Lives gals, and that’s pretty darned colorful if you get my drift.
Green makes Jeeter a truly menacing figure, yet reveals the human behind the twisted monster. Tobias takes the part of Green Grow’s braincell-deprived Ado Annie and makes her weirdly, wonderfully her own. Leo Knudson (Old Man Peck), John Manahan (Man), and Wendy Pigott (Cory Elam) provide a trio of down-home cameos.
Last but not least, recent Cal Arts grad Zachary Davidson is such an irresistible Peddler, you may find yourself wishing this were Oklahoma! so that the up-and-comer would have two or three times more to do.
Ensemble members Dimitri Aleman Jones, Tate Ammons, Olivia Buntaine, Carina Cherbesque, Caitlin Durkin, Arielle Fodor, Devin Holliman, Kathleen Leary, Kendall Linzee, Victoria Yvonne Martinez, Jay Sosnicki, Schyler Tillett, and Alexander Wauthier provide plenty of Oklahoma flavor. Anahi Bustillos and Colin Simon are understudies.
Randy Hozian’s folksy costumes and Zach Moore’s vivid lighting design complement the just-right Botanicum year-round set, dressed to perfection with Erin Walley’s pitch-perfect period properties.
Jonathan Blandino is assistant director. Kim Cameron is stage manager and Jackie Nicole assistant stage manager. Additional program credits go to Beth Glasner (wardrobe supervisor) and Jennifer Burkhardt (lighting design associate).
Even if you’ve never seen Oklahoma! (hard as that might be to believe), you’ll enjoy Green Grow The Lilacs (and have great fun singing along to its assorted refrains, lyrics provided by the management).
If you’re an Oklahoma! fan, you’ll have an even greater time discovering where the show that revolutionized American musical theater came from.
The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga.
August 8, 2015
Photos: Ian Flanders