‘Out of your dreams’–and onto the stage’ 3-D Theatricals, the Ovation Award-winning theater-company in Southern California, has, this summer chosen to revisit Rodgers and Hammerstein’s watershed musical about a Cow-Poke named “Curly” and “Laurey”—the headstrong lass he loves, and the western territory they lived in—called “Oklahoma!” The latest in their scintillating 2016-2017 Season, this new production recently made its debut at “The Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center” before moving onto The Cerritos Center For The Performing Arts”. In the process, they’ve given new relevance to this bona fide bit of Americana (–which many credit with helping establish the “Golden Age” of Broadway musicals.) Based on Lynn Riggs 1930 play, “Green Grow The Lilacs”, this musical adaptation features a book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II which are perfectly blended with Richard Rodgers’ captivating melodies, while the Direction is by 3-D Theatricals Co-founder and Executive Producer, T.J. Dawson (along with Assistant Director Ryan Ruge) with Choreography by Leslie Stevens.
Set in the Oklahoma Territory just after the turn of the 20th century, there’s “plenty of heart and plenty of hope” in this high-spirited tale played against a rugged rivalry between the local farmers and cowboys into which “Curly McLain”, a handsome Range-Rider, and “Laurey Williams”, a winsome farm girl, experience frustrated flirtations, romance and courtship. Of course, in typical Rodgers and Hammerstein fashion, at first the two feign like they’re totally indifferent to each other, even though it’s apparent to everyone (except them) that the pair are perfect for each other. Affecting indignation that “Curly” would presume to accompany her to the big charity social, at one point “Laurey” calls him “A braggin’, bow-legged, ‘wish he had a sweetheart’ Bum!” As their story unfolds we also meet such sharp and unforgettable characters as “Laurey’s” warm, wise–and watchful “Aunt Eller”; “Ado Annie” –a would be “Goodtime Girl Who Cain’t Say No” along with her hapless Cowboy Beau, “Will Parker”; “Ali Hakim—a smooth-talking Persian Peddler, and “Jud Fry”—a stealthy loner who works on “Aunt Eller’s” farm. Chock full of heartache, hard-work, love, laughs and even a touch of tragedy, they all encompass the dream of a frontier full of possibility in a brand new state.
Having created a more racially diverse retelling of this theatrical icon, Dawson’s direction attempts to add gravitas and deeper relevance to what is essentially a musical-romantic ‘comedy’ and product of 1940’s era ‘married in five minutes’ then “happily ever after” proclivities; favorably in this regard, (taking into account the dictates of Hammerstein’s text,) he has very much succeeded. In fact some of his more inspired ‘inclusions” (such as the Native American ‘Spirits’) might cause one to wonder why such ideas weren’t tried way before this. What’s more, it should be noted that the Director’s point isn’t so much that any issues raised here necessarily get resolved here—but rather that we, as the audience, see them in a different and weightier light; concrete resolutions and/or conclusions he leaves up to our own individual acumen to be mused over and worked out (which we are sure to do) long after leaving the theater. And while the conclusion, given this more empathetic approach, may come off as perhaps a little abrupt, it always has—even in more ‘traditional’ versions.
Either way, one can thrillingly tell what we’re in for is going to be innovative right from the start–even before any orchestral notes have been sounded with a ‘Native American’ invocation over the corn (—these intriguing figures will appear time again throughout the action—sometimes as actual characters, other times as these aforementioned ‘embodiments of the land’.) Immediately after, the cornfield ‘parts’ revealing a dusty farm-house as the overture officially gets underway—but rather than just have the music play with house lights at half (as is tradition with overtures,) this time, the music serves as a melodic framework to introduce several key characters—namely the farm’s owner, “Aunt Eller”, her niece “Laurey” and their farm hand, “Jud”. This tactic gets us who are spectators interested and involved from the very beginning. All the same, don’t get the idea that this new thought-provoking concept in any way short-shrifts just how magnificent a musical “Oklahoma!” has proven to be over the years. Just as assuredly, all the puns and gags inherent in Hammerstein’s book hit their marks like an arrow on a bulls-eye, garnering plenty of well-earned laughs gratis the supremely talented cast.
Also among its many accomplishments, “Oklahoma!” is credited with its ground-breaking use of dance to help advance and enhance the overall story—including its masterful use of “Ballet” (–something practically unheard of at the time.) Very agreeably, this is where Ms. Stevens’ (along with Associate Choreographer Greg Sample’s) impact is evident from start to finish. The entire show is overflowing with high-stepping and fancy-strutting, but their first chance to categorically “astound” is through the initial “large” group effort, “Kansas City” which starts out small as “Will Parker” (just returned from the city in question) kicks things off with a few nifty ‘Herky-Jerky’ and Vaudevillian moves, then onto some more familiar ‘bucolic’ footwork like the Texas two-step and do-see-do chasse’s. Soon he’s joined by members of the dance ensemble who lose no time until they’re executing some fairly athletic moves encompassing stunts like boisterous back flips and awesome assemblés–even throwing in some terrific trick-roping with lassos for extra measure! Without a doubt though, the piece-de-resistance of their terpsichorean artistry is the huge “Dream Ballet” that concludes the first act. (So captivating are the eye-popping moves here, it could even be said that this alone is worth the cost of admission!) First, Caroline Moulios as the “young Laurey”, then by Missy Marion as the “grown-up Laurey”, illustrate her back-story in a series of opulent ballet moves, going on to depict through energetic movement, Laurey’s inner conundrum: Two men want her–Curley and Jud. At the outset, things are kept light and buoyant punctuated with plenty of lifts, sprightly pirouettes and robust cross-stage leaps as Stevens incorporates a few discerning nods to the original by the legendary Agnes DeMille—but she’s careful not to patently copy or try to entirely reproduce any of them. Eventually though, the stage picture grows considerably darker—the maneuvers become more sordid with gaudy gyrations and lurid “can-can-esque” high-kicks by nightmarish saloon girls who menacingly surround “Laurey”–even ‘confining’ her through a frenzied kick-line, as fears of what her life may devolve into if she makes the wrong choice, physically ‘come to life’. It’s a big, breathtaking bonanza that ends the act in high style! After intermission, things are ignited again with the invigorating full-cast production number “The Farmer And The Cowman”—staged as a rollicking square dance until it bursts into an all-out Donnybrook of dazzling dance moves—packing more than its share of daring doings (just ask the ladies who are tossed in the air during it…for that matter, ask the gents tossing them too!) This also easily ranks as a full-blooded showstopper!
In his affable turn as the cowboy “Curley”, Zachary Ford shows-off a tremendous voice time and again! Then add to it a fresh-faced “boy next door’ look and appeal (think a young John Davidson were he portrayed by Tim Curry.) Validating his vocal dexterity with the inaugural notes of “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’”, Ford infuses his interpretation with the slightest suggestion of a country-twang–just as he does with the equally pleasing “Surry With The Fringe On The Top”. (In this case, that “Surrey” portentously turns out to be a turn-of-the-century “Horseless Carriage—albeit one, fittingly with “fringe on top”, thus symbolically pointing toward the progressive future these Homesteaders are hoping for.) Along with Rufus Bonds Jr. as “Jud”, the two bestow on us some top-notch harmony in the darkly comic duet, “Poor Jud Is Daid”. However, Ford is at his dynamic best leading the show’s iconic title number “Oklahoma”—for which he (and everybody really,) pulls out all the stops (—there’s even encore built right in!) As the gal of his dreams “Laurey”, Julia Aks is herself a vocal powerhouse with a sumptuous soprano voice. This you can similarly tell early on with her own verses of “Surrey”. Admittedly though, “Many A New Day” is her first chance to at last cut loose and it is certainly worth waiting for! Initiated by the female ensemble, the number builds into a vivacious interlude for the ladies, before being taken over as a compelling solo for Aks. Her various reprises (—and there are several of them,) are also like the cherry a top the already delectable Sundae that is her performance! In addition, together, Aks and Ford make a very fine on-stage couple—and most definitely a harmonic one sharing such first-rate duets as “People Will Say We’re In Love” and it’s reprise, “Let People Say We’re In Love”. Both are sure-fire highlights of the First AND Second acts. Consider too, that “Laurey” is the first in a long line of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘spunky’ Heroines, and acting-wise, Aks’ logically favors presenting her as a sturdy pioneer woman not adverse to sporting dungarees over dresses, or fishing in the local stream over primping in front of her mirror. Even the big ‘Dream Ballet’ sequence commences with her napping in a cornfield instead of the more ‘customary’ environ of her upstairs Boudoir. Nonetheless, Aks also sagaciously exposes just a hint of dreaminess to our girl here and there, intimating that underneath the drab, ‘tom-boyish’ garb and blustery protestations to the contrary, beats a genuine romantic heart!
Meanwhile, Tracy Rowe Mutz –a familiar face having made her mark in several recent 3-D Theatrical offerings, dominates the stage as the stalwart but gutsy, “Aunt Eller”! So effective is she that it almost seems like this role was tailored for her significant talents, and she doesn’t ring a false note nor trot a faulty step! Although you have to wait until the second half for her real opportunity to marshal the lead in a number, when she ultimately does (as with the Act Two rouser, “The Farmer And The Cowman”,) it’s even better than what we’ve come to expect from this versatile performer! Furthermore, brilliantly carrying the sub-plot (still another tradition in R & H musicals) is Tom Berklund as Cattle Wrangler “Will Parker”. In his skilled stewardship, “Will” is a genial, gangly, good ol’ boy with a great ear-to-ear grin. He’s also a capable dancer who shows off some nimble moves during his energetic solo “Kansas City”. Joining him as “Ado Annie”, Kelley Dorney evinces some excellent comic timing and enthusiasm reminiscent of a young Carol Burnett or Kaye Ballard. “Which one do you like best?” “Laurey” asks her friend of the various ‘Admirers’ “Annie” has been entertaining while her steady “Will”’ is out-of-town; “Whatever one I’m with” Annie enthuses as part of the preamble to her effervescent little ditty “I’m Just A Girl Who Cain’t Say No!” The gold-standard of musical theater ‘comedy songs”, Dorney does a fantastic job with it—and the same needs to be said of all her humor-filled scenes. Post intermission, she delights all over again with the spirit-raising “All ’Er Nuthin” opposite Berklund, who himself once again reminds us just how charismatic a performer he is as well. The biggest re-envisioning (and happily, the biggest ‘revelation”) is Rufus Bonds Jr. as “Jud Fry”. Bonds portrayal is far more well-rounded, and in many striking aspects, even sympathetic. In his hands, “Jud” isn’t evil or sinister—just a bit rough around the edges—a regular, relatable ‘guy’, as opposed to the out-and-out villain he’s usually been painted as. So too, Bonds comparably boasts an incredible voice which he handily puts into the service of his half of “Poor Jud”—but also in the impactful soliloquy-as-song “Lonely Room” (still another ‘lost classic’ within the score.) Thankfully, this rare ‘re-instatement’ gives us more of a chance to sample Bonds momentous singing talent, even as it also imparts who “Jud” is and what he’s gone through, and he veritably ‘raises the roof’ with his operatic rendering of it! It’s an A-Plus addition and still another reason to fervently acclaim this production.
Exceptional support is also delivered by several who, while their time in the spot-light may be somewhat abbreviated, still cast a wide (and memorable) shadow while in it! Among them, Drew Boudreau is the hapless Persian Peddler, “Ali Hakim”. Still another often marginalized character, in this production he gladly lives up to his full comedic potential—and that potential is quite full, thanks to Boudreau’s antic on-stage proficiency. Backed by all the men of the ensemble, he shines at the center of “It’s A Scandal! It’s An Outrage”—a rapid fire ‘patter’ number and consummate ‘ode to bachelorhood’ which focuses on the trials and tribulations encountered by “Hakim”. Likewise frequently cut from the score, here it’s been refreshingly restored, and proves to be a resounding winner for everyone involved. E.E. Bell is also one humdinger of a force to be reckoned with as “Ado Annie’s” bellowing blowhard of a father, “Andrew Carnes” (—who also happens to be the local judge of the territory!) Bell furnishes some big belly laughs in his supremely funny, if brief, turn also registering with his part in “The Farmer and The Cowman” (“This here’s a party!” He roars!) Along with Berklund and Boudreau, he also contributes immensely to the uproarious “Box Social Auction” scene directly following. Every bit as distinguished is Cloie Wyatt Taylor as the boisterous, larger-than-life lass, giddy “Gertie Cummings”. Taylor too, adroitly knows her way around a joke—and more specifically, how to get the most out of it, which she absolutely does every time she’s on stage!
Technically speaking, the corn honestly is as ‘high as an elephant’s eye’ thanks to the sets provided by “The Music And Theater Company”, which feature a looming ‘curtain’ of corn stalks that greets audiences upon their entry into the auditorium. Also laudable is the eternally whirling wind-mill right behind them, while all is bathed with a twinkling retinue of “fireflies”. Once lifted, “Aunt Eller’s” ‘just a shade this side of ramshackle’ Homestead is discovered. Then, through the resourceful use of a turntable and roll-on ‘wagon’ set-pieces, other locations will appear—like a disheveled mid-western train depot, or later, Jud’s cramped, pin-up girl festooned ‘smoke-house’ digs. Jean Yves Tessier’s expressive and dramatic lighting design also manifests itself during the entire production—surprising and helping to enchant every time. Through light he concocts an array of widely varied effects from fireflies, pastoral sunrises and starry summer nights (complete with a capacious “full moon”) to the beguiling ‘dream’ lighting—which originates with an inviting pale sky-blue before subtly transforming into salacious red! Andrew Nagy’s back-scrim projections also literally ‘enliven’ the backdrop with vibrant cloud projections (which even display the occasional flock of geese flying across the horizon!) There’s also the “dream cornfield” which illuminates the first half of the ballet before abruptly changing into a large shattered window-pane as her fantasy detours into less sanguine realms. Alexandra Johnson’s clever costume designs look like what one might expect to find on the apparel pages of the Sears-Roebuck catalogue circa 1903, and eloquently convey the feel of early-20th century prairie life. Yet she also makes imaginative use of color—quite fitting for ‘the heightened reality’ of a musical (—even these bronco-bustin’ Buckaroos do so in plenty of brash and ebullient hues!) Not to be overlooked either is Musical Director Julie Lamoureax who also does an outstanding (and symphonious) job presiding over the 23 member orchestra.
How can you not love a show that begins with “O.K.”? Following a “Preview” on Friday, June 16th, “Oklahoma!” ‘officially’ opened on Saturday, June 17th, 2017 at “The Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center” located at: 1935 E. Manhattan Blvd., in Redondo Beach, California. There it will play through Sunday, June 25th, 2017. Showtimes for this engagement are Friday and Saturday, June 23rd and 24th at 8:00 PM (with an additional Saturday Matinee on June 24th at 2:00 PM) and another Sunday Matinee on June 25th at 2:00 PM. Afterward, the show moves to “The Cerritos Center For The Performing Arts” located at 12700 Center Court Drive in Cerritos, California, where it is slated to run from Friday, June 30th through Sunday, July 9th, 2017. Showtimes for this engagement are: Friday evenings at 8:00 PM; Saturdays at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. There will also be an added performance on Thursday, July 6th at 7:30 PM. Tickets for both engagements may be purchased on-line by logging onto http://www.3dtshows.org (or, for the Cerritos run, http://www.Cerritoscenter.com as well.) Box Offices for both locations open two hours prior to performances (One hour for Sunday Performances at Cerritos Center.) Group and Student discounts are also available with special $20 “Rush” tickets obtainable one hour prior to “select performances”.
Production Stills By Salvador Farfan / Caught in the Moment Photography (CaughtintheMoment.com) Courtesy Of Michael Sterling & Associates (www.msapr.net) and “3-D Theatricals”; Special Thanks To Michael Sterling, T.J. Dawson, Daniel Dawson, Gretchen Dawson, Leslie Stevens, Ryan Ruge, Greg Sample, Julie Lamoureux And To The Cast And Crew Of “3-D Theatricals” 2017 Production Of “Oklahoma!” For Making This Story Possible