Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre follows its excellent Guys And Dolls revival with an equally fine production of another mid-20th-century classic, the one that started it all, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Oklahoma!
American musical theater changed for good on March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theatre in New York City when Oklahoma! opened on Broadway minus chorus girls, one-liners, or bright-and-bouncy opening production number.
Oklahoma! was, and is to this day, the first truly modern Broadway musical, one in which songs take the place of dialog, not only advancing plot but providing audiences with one Hit Parade favorite after another.
The majority of Oklahoma!’s story unfolds over the course of a single “oh what a beautiful day,” the day of the box social dance. As Curly (Gregg Hammer) and Laurey (Michaelia Leigh) exchange barbed words, their flirtatious undertone makes it clear that these two independent souls are made for each other, though 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 (Monica Ricketts) to say “No” to either her beau Will Parker (Michael Skrzek) or Ali Hakim (Jonathan Arana), the Persian peddler traveling from town to town selling his exotic wares.
Later, the introduction of the dangerously twisted Jud Fry (Jeffrey Ricca), who’s got 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.
And talk about song classics: “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey With The Fringe On The Top,” “I Cain’t Say No,” “People Will Say We’re In Love,” “All Er Nuthin’,” and the infectious title song. This one’s got them all.
Director Chuck Ketter clearly knows Oklahoma! like the back of his hand, his savvy revealed from the get-go by his casting choices. It’s refreshing to say the least to see all but a couple of “older” characters played by under-30s, or at the very least by performers who look 20something.
As Curly and Laurey, Hammer and Leigh make for a highly appealing pair of romantic leads. Ricketts is a bubbly delight as Ado Annie, Skrzek is ah-shucks adorable (and a fantastic dancer) as Will, and Candlelight staple Arana completes the B-plot romantic triangle to comical effect as Ali Hakim.
Ketter’s smartest casting choice, and one that’s all too rarely done, is to cast Judd Fry as hot, handsome, and hunky. Ricca’s Judd is all three, with a baritone to match, adding an oft-ignored layer of repressed sexual desire to Laurey’s proclaimed disgust at being pursued by her dark and twisted handyman.
Dynell Leigh reprises her fabulously feisty turn as Aunt Eller from last year’s Cabrillo Music Theatre Oklahoma! revival, once again proving herself a Southland treasure, with able support from Sam Nisbitt (Andrew Carnes) and Garrett Chandler (Ike Skidmore).
Dustin Ceithamer recreates Agnes de Mille’s once groundbreaking, now iconic choreography, highlighted by the two-stepping “Kansas City,” the high-energy “The Farmer And The Cowman,” and the first-of-its-kind “Dream Ballet” featuring the dance talents of Dylan Pass and Stephanie Urko as Dream Curly and Dream Laurey.
Ensemble cast members prove themselves more than up to the task of executing Ceithamer/de Mille’s energetic dance moves. Snaps all-around to Scott Arnold (Fred), Rachel Burkert (Vivian), Sam Chlanda (Kate), Emerson Dauwalder (a deliciously dimwitted Slim), Emily Dauwalder (who scores extra points for Gertie Cummings’ hysterical shriek of a laugh), Michael Gonzalez (Mike), Amy Hammer (Ellen), Kristin O’Connell (Sylvie), Chad Takeda (Joe), and E.Y. Washington (Cord Elam).
Douglas Austin’s musical direction assures fine vocal performances to Candlelight’s prerecorded orchestral tracks.
Ketter’s particularly colorful set design is complemented by Mary Warde’s 1906 costumes (provided by Glendale Centre Theatre and The Theatre Company) and by Mary Warde and Mischon Gruber-Gonzales’ larger-than-life wigs. Steve Giltner of StreetLite LLC lights all of the above with his accustomed professional expertise.
Daniel Moorefield is stage manager. Orlando Montes is technical director. Executive chef Juan Alvarado and sous chef Maria Sandoval serve up Candlelight’s invariably yummy cuisine. Kudos as always to Candlelight Pavilion owner/producer Ben D. Bollinger, general manager/vice president Michael Bollinger, acting producer Mindy Teuber, and especially to artistic director John LaLonde.
Candlelight will next be moving into the 60s with How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying before offering dinner-and-a-show stagings of Mary Poppins, Footloose The Musical, and more.
In the meantime, audiences can sit back and relish the many pleasures of the grandfather of all contemporary musicals, the one-and-only Oklahoma!, well worth a drive out Claremont way.
Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont.
March 13, 2106
Photos: Demetrios Katsantonis