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Oklahoma! – Los Angeles Theater Review

 

DARK? NOT SO MUCH. WORTHWHILE? OH, YEAH.

 

picture - Oklahoma!Theater Review

by Tony Frankel 

published June 23, 2010 

 

Oklahoma!

now playing in Los Angeles at the MET Theatre  

through July 18

 

The real stars of Oklahoma!, presented by the Musical Theatre of Los Angeles, are Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein’s 1943 book is solidly funny and sweet – it avoids creaking with age because it shuns overt sentimentality, and the lyrics are chock-full of poetic imagery and clever internal rhymes. There is nothing like a Rodgers waltz, and rare is the Broadway composer who comes close to creating ballads as lush as Out of my Dreams and Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’. In fact, every melody in the ground-breaking show is memorable. It remains one of the most-produced musicals for a reason: it’s darn near foolproof.

 

When the press kit for the current production at the MET Theatre promised that this won’t be your mother’s ribbons and lace version, focusing instead on the darker side of life on the Plains, this reviewer was intrigued. But once “the boys” and “the girls” of the chorus appeared during Kansas City, it was clear that we would be offered no new insights into the dark, gritty, hardscrabble territory. Instead, we have a heavy-sighin’, fly swattin’ ensemble with men’s thumbs tucked in the belt loops of their pants, and gals with arms akimbo. Pretty standard community theatre fare, one would think.

 

But here’s the mule kicker: director Robert Marra has, for the most part, assembled an earnest cast that offers some strikingly poignant moments. Add to this Tanya Possick’s rowdy and comical choreography, and you are guaranteed to leave the theatre a-hootin’ and a-hollerin’.

 

The famous opening has the singing cowboy, Curly (a beguiling Travis Dixon) paying a call to the farm of butter-churning Aunt Eller (Maura Smith). His ulterior motive is the design to ask Eller’s niece, Laurey (comely Jean Altadel) to the box social in a surrey that he rented for the night. But the two lovebirds have been squabbling for quite some time because they just can’t admit that they love each other. Instead, Laurey accepts the box social invitation from her ominous hired hand Jud Fry (Jay Rincon) to spite Curly; Curly invites Aunt Eller, and the Dust Bowl drama ensues.

 

Mr. Dixon and Miss Altadel are not just suitably matched, but the Surrey number was sweet, unpretentious and downright charming. Not in the many times this reviewer has witnessed Curly’s clip-clop cooing has it been more entrancing. They hit the right notes time and again throughout the evening. Dream Curly and Dream Laurey were cleverly replaced in the Ballet by Mr. Dixon and Miss Altadel, who more than held their own, dancing up a dust storm.

 

Ms. Smith’s Eller is a mixed oat bag: she is delightfully sweet and genuine but her cutesy approach obscures the “you-got-to-be-hearty” grittiness. It is a fine presentational performance that suffers from a lack of timing.

 

Once Will Parker (Ryan Oboza) hits the scene, it’s time to defy criticism and jump on the buckboard of fun. You’ll be glad you saw these kids dance their chaps and garters off in The Farmer and the Cowman. Mr. Oboza is goofy, boisterous and adorable; well-matched to Jillian Gomez’s Ado Annie. Gomez’s kewpie doll pout keeps her bordering on Vaudevillian eye-goggling, but she manages to rein it in at just the right moments. You just might say, “She’s sweeter ‘en cream.”

 

Jay Rincon’s Jud is boy-band gorgeous, which gives credence to Laurie’s two-year-long inability to fire the threatening farmhand. Unfortunately, Mr. Rincon is as menacing as Justin Timberlake, and could not capture Jud’s desperation and vulnerability in his solo, Lonely Room – although Mr. Rincon shows promise. It’s a shame this “darkened” version of Oklahoma! didn’t dare to have Laurey actually display some underpinnings of lust for the swarthy swine.

 

James Patrillo, as Ado Annie’s father, Andrew Carnes, doesn’t come off grizzled and weatherworn; he’s very silly and clearly studies at the Aunt Eller School of Timing. He’s likeable enough, but I’m surprised each line of his dialogue doesn’t end with, “Yer darn tootin!’ ”

 

His silliness is exacerbated by that flapping, toasted marshmallow-colored sun bonnet he’s a-wearin’, and the outfits on the chorus makes one wonder if Anna’s Linens hadn’t somehow regurgitated all over them. These are the real Americans who tamed this land? The mismatched gingham and plaid costumes by Ann McMahan either just got back from the Chinese laundry, or dust hadn’t arrived in the Plains yet.

 

Scenic designer Craig Pavilionis succeeds with the realism of Laurie’s front porch. He mystifies, however, with a large staircase/rock/hill/thing on stage right that looks like an unfinished ride at Knott’s Barry Farm.

 

Didn’t anyone get the memo about a darker side?

 

Speaking of memos, there should be one about the crinkling, cellophane potato chip bags that the theatre sells and allows patrons to eat during the show – on round picnic tables that ring the apron of the stage, no less. It is difficult to achieve suspension of disbelief while theatergoers munch in Laurey’s front yard.

 

None of these misfires will stop you from getting your money’s worth, so go for a visit to the Oklahoma prairie.  Just don’t mind the occasional cow patty.

 

tonyfrankel @ stageandcinema.com

 

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