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Arts & Entertainment

Theater Review: Oklahoma

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 4

By Ben Miles

Based on Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” the musical “Oklahoma!” was the first collaboration of composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II. The original Broadway production opened March, 1943; it ran for over 2,240 performances, finally closing in May, 1948. Demand for tickets to “Oklahoma!” was unprecedented, as the show’s popularity seem to grow exponentially. In fact, “Oklahoma!” held the Broadway record for longevity until “My Fair Lady” hit the boards of the Great White Way, thirteen years later. Since then, several “Oklahoma!” revivals have taken place to much acclaim, both on Broadway and in London’s West End.

Now, “Oklahoma!” has come to Long Beach’s Carpenter Performing Arts Center in a marvelous Musical Theatre West production (through March 3), and under Davis Gaines’ detailed direction and Lee Martino’s exquisite choreography, the show comes into vivid realization. With over a dozen song and dance routines in two acts (musical direction by Dennis Castellano), the nearly three hour production, filled with 32 performers, pays a living homage to the innovative integration of score and action that has made “Oklahoma!” a standard in musical theater.

The plot unfolds in Oklahoma territory, circa 1906. It’s a rough hewed life, where cowboys are long in lust and short on romance. Curly McLain (Bryant Martin in a pristine performance with crystalline vocal abilities) is a cowpoke vying for the affections of Laurey Williams (Madison Claire Parks in beautiful countenance and voice). There’s a hoedown this night, where an auction for basket lunches will be held; the picnic baskets are made ready by neighboring girls, as a fundraiser for the prairie schoolhouse – and when a fellow wins a particular lunch basket, he will dine with the young lady who prepared it.

The troubled farmhand, Jud Fry (an impressively stoic Christopher Newell), has a dark infatuation with Laurey and has asked her to the evening’s shindig; Laurey, in an effort to make Curly jealous has accepted Jud’s ominous offer. But “Oklahoma!” has more than this one love/hate ménage on display.

There’s also Will Parker (a nimble-kneed Luke Hawkins) who’s just won $50 at a Kansas City fair. This good fortune entitles Will to first nuptial rights to Ado Annie (a mischievous Teya Patt), at least so-says Ado Annie’s fiery father, Andrew Carnes (the formidable Stephen Grant Reynolds). Mistakenly, however, Will has spent the cash on gifts for Ado Annie – a deal-breaker, according to The Daddy of Ado Annie. It’s hardly an issue for Ado Annie, though, given that she also has eyes for the Persian peddler, Ali Hakim (a very funny Amin El Gamal).

The cast has a multicultural hue that, while improbable among the population of the Oklahoma Territory at the turn of the century, is easily accepted in this “Oklahoma!” For example, Aunt Eller Murphy is fully embodied by the consummate Saundra McClain. Though she’s of a different ethnicity than Curly and the other farm dwellers, it is due to the genuine nature of McClain’s performance and the bonhomie so evident in her characterization that there is no strain for us to believe in the circumstances we are witnessing.

Of course, the notable “Oklahoma!” songbook is nicely showcased by a live and vibrant orchestra. Such standards as “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” and, of course, the title song itself, “Oklahoma!” are renewed and made ever current by this capable troupe of triple-threat thespians and well-heeled musicians.

This technical crew also excels in bringing this production into being. Scenic designer Anthony Ward takes us back to a farmhouse in Indian Territory, easily transporting us through time and space with his evocative stage architecture. Jessica Olson’s costumes are well-suited to the time and tasks at issue here, while Jean-Yves Tessier’s lighting and Julie Ferrin’s sound design are indispensible to the high-quality of this production – as is Ken Merckx’s realistic fight choreography.

Also, a special shout-out goes to the Dream Ballet sequence at the end of Act 1. It is a mesmerizing sequence in this enjoyable staging of an American classic. While Oklahoma may be OK, this “Oklahoma!” is sublime.

“Oklahoma!” – a Musical Theatre West production – continues at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, located at 6200 East Atherton Street, Long Beach. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Matinees are Sundays at 2 p.m. A special matinee time has been added on Saturday at 2 p.m. on March 2. Additionally, there is a Sunday performance on March 3 at 7 p.m. For reservations, call (562) 856-1999 Ext. 4. For online ticketing and further information, visit