'Oklahoma!' more than OK
Purty girls and dancing fellas bring high spirits to the stage
Tri-Valley Rep's production of "Oklahoma" does exactly what entertainment is supposed to do -- transport us to another world, in this case the Oklahoma territory in 1906, on the threshold of statehood. The talented cast, directed by Kendall Tieck, delivers an enjoyable musical tale whose main characters face the challenge of admitting they love each other while dealing with a farm hand named Jud Fry (Robert Sholty), who is a nasty piece of work and completes the love triangle.
The production begins peacefully: Shortly after dawn Aunt Eller (Mary Gimeno) sits churning butter in the front yard of her farm. Cowboy Curly (Josh Milbourne) struts onstage, looks around appreciatively and expresses his happiness in song, "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning." He is there to ask Aunt Eller's niece Laurey (Katie Potts) to that evening's box lunch social.
Sparks fly between these two, igniting not just the stage but the audience, which has no trouble loving these characters and their topnotch voices. But the couple resort to teasing rather than admitting their feelings, and, to punish Curly, Laurey accepts a ride to the social with Jud Fry, who is obsessed with her.
Another love story soon takes centerstage as the delightful Ado Annie (Morgan Breedveld) flirts with both the bedazzled cowboy Will Parker (Will Peifer) and the Persian traveling peddler, Ali Kakim (Rick Costello). "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No," Ado Annie explains to Laurey. This situation leads to many a laugh as Will tries to get permission from Ado Annie's dad to marry her, Ali tries to extricate himself from the romance before it ends in marriage, and Ado Annie can't say no to kisses from either.
One song follows another, moving the story forward, a first for musical theater when it opened on Broadway in 1943, the premier collaboration by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Choreographer Kevin Hammond has developed fun and clever ensemble numbers with plenty of action and comedic moves. In a change of tone, a moving finale to the first act is a long ballet sequence, part dream, part nightmare, as Laurey appraises her two suitors.
Act Two starts out with a song and dance number called "The Farmer and the Cowman," a good-natured comparison of ways of life in the territory. The title song "Oklahoma" is another rousing production by the entire ensemble. Laurey and Curley finally both declare their love although Jud is a force that threatens to disrupt the happiness until the dramatic climax.
Hopefully this Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre production will continue to draw full houses as it did Saturday on opening night. Musical Director Jo Anne Fosselman leads a 14-piece orchestra that keeps everyone's toes tapping and, when appropriate, softens to accompany the fine voices onstage. In addition to the familiar signature number "Oklahoma," it was surprising about how many of the songs were recognizable.
The escapism of the theater was surely needed even more during war-time when the play opened. Seventy years ago, "Oklahoma!" was an immediate hit on Broadway -- as it was at the Bankhead Theater on Saturday night.