Oklahoma!/book & lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II/music by Richard Rodgers/directed by Davis Gaines/choreographed by Lee Martino/Musical Theatre West, Long Beach/through March 3
When Oklahoma! was first produced on Broadway in 1943 it became the first smash hit for newly formed collaborating team Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and also the first real book musical, preceded only by Showboat. It was a breakthrough musical, which when given a first-class production, is still, some 70 years later, without question, one of the greatest American musicals ever written. "The Farmer and the Cowman" truly represents the philosophy of what America is all about, a unity and pride that is unmistakably individual. MTW's newest production is exceptional - by far one of the best to be staged in a very long time. Director Davis Gaines - his first direction - magnificently brings together an astoundingly talented cast now in Long Beach through March 3 only.
The perfect show...but this is not to say that the state of Oklahoma was without its share of problems or that America was in any way perfect in 1906 - hardly, but when Curly (Bryant Martin) sings "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin" to Laurey (Madison Claire Parks) and to Aunt Eller (Saundra McClain), their divergent reactions typify the beginnings of real American freedom. Laurey is fresh and inexperienced; Aunt Eller, older and wiser, but both, like the earth beneath, are genuine and good. Jud Fry (Christopher Newell), the strange hired hand who also has eyes for Laurey, is a threat to Laurey's happiness as well as to the entire community. Laurey's pal Ado Annie (Teya Patt) is her opposite, a flirt who will stop at nothing to satisfy her desires, by keeping both suitor Will Parker (Luke Hawkins) and the devious Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Amin El Gamal) on a leash. Ah, the lessons to be learned, and what better way to experience it all than by way of the glorious songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, like "People Will Say We're In Love", "I C'aint Say No", "Kansas City", "Out of My Dreams" and "Many a New Day". Artistically innovative to the show, which would become a R & H trademark - at least again in Carousel - a "Dream Ballet", that foretells the impending threat to Laurey as she finds herself caught between Curly and Jud. Choreographer Lee Martino does beautifully wondrous work here and in every other number she so deftly stages as with the big broad strokes of "Kansas City" and "Oklahoma".
The ensemble is so wonderful under Gaines' divine hand. Parks and Martin are the quintessential Laurey and Curly, to consistently root for. Newell gives Jud Fry an inner psychotic turmoil that seethes. All three give tremendous performances. Patt's Ado Annie is deliciously naughty and Hawkins' Parker, a devilishly wild hellcat. El Gamal makes Ali Hakem a comedic gem and McClain is delectably on target as motherly Aunt Eller. Stephen Grant Reynolds is surly and fun as Andrew Carnes, Ado Annie's grunting Pa. Kudos to Katya Preiser and Steve Ewing as Dream Laury and Dream Curly, and to the other members of the large dancing/singing ensemble. Stellar work from everyone!
Anthony Ward's scenic design with corn as high an an elephant's eye, Jessica Olson's 'purdy' costumes, Jean-Yves Tessier's vibrant lighting and Julie Ferrin's sound design delight the senses. MTW's Oklahoma! is a show for the books. With a production of this calibre, it is easy to see why the musical has endured on top for 70 years!