“It ain’t so much a question of not knowin’ what to do…” One More Productions, the resident theatrical company housed in the landmark “Gem Theater” in Garden Grove California, absolutely ‘knows what to do’ to mount an impressive musical–and now they’re ‘doin’ fine’ taking on one of the true benchmarks of the American Musical Theater with their new presentation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma”. Their inaugural offering of 2023, this marks the troupe’s 19th year at “The Gem”—not to mention the centennial year of the theater itself, having been founded in 1923. Given this sense of history and community the organization has established during its tenure at the theater makes their choice of such a pioneering musical to commemorate this auspicious occasion even more appropriate. Directed by OMP Co-founder Damien Lorton (who also serves as Musical Director,) the Choreography is by Kady Lawson and Brittany Rose Dawson. Perchance a better lyric for this staging would be (to borrow from one of the show’s more memorable tunes,) : ‘Outa Your Dreams And Onto The Stage’!
The debut collaboration between the illustrious duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, “Oklahoma” quickly came to reinvent the musical by seamlessly incorporating the various numbers impeccably into the plot, and the score boasts one time-honored hit after another. Indeed, virtually ALL of them have become proud standards within the “Great American Songbook” canon. These include “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning”, “Surrey With The Fringe On Top”, “Many A New Day”, “People Will Say We’re In Love” and the buoyant title number. Based on Lynn Riggs 1930 play, “Green Grow The Lilacs”, “Oklahoma” involves the amorous adventure of “Curly”—a lone cowpoke ridin’ the range of 1903’s “Oklahoma Territory” (just prior to its statehood,) and the farm girl-of-his-dreams, “Laurey”. However, to keep “Curly” on his toes, this headstrong young filly entertains (or at least lets her Buckaroo beau think she does,) the attentions of a rival suitor–a morose and even frightening farmhand named “Jud Fry”. A secondary liaison concerns good-natured cowboy “Will Parker” and his coquettish fiancée, “Ado Annie”, while overseeing them all is Laurey’s homespun-but-level-headed, “Aunt Eller”—on whose farm all the action unfolds.
“There’s a reason they call this a classic,” Lorton observed on opening night, and refreshingly, he has stayed true to the tone and the times the show is set in, while still shaking things up with just the right touch—emphasizing a character or plot point here, playing down or delaying some others there, with the end result being the audience receiving a truer, fuller, production than has been seen of late (including your Senior class production from way back when!) Perhaps one of the most superlative things that can be said of the show’s general layout lies in how one scene flows logically and effortlessly one after another, and Lorton’s direction makes perceptive use of this. He and his cast aren’t just ‘performing’ “Oklahoma”—they’re enhancing it! Another way he’s managed this is by opening it up by way of restoring several of the score’s ‘cut’ or seldom heard numbers which afford deeper insight into the characters who sing them. Once again making judicious use of the entire auditorium, Lorton has “Curly” make his initial entrance from the rear of the theater, thus adding drama and excitement right from the get-go, as our Hero launches into the iconic “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning”. In Act Two, the near-epic “Farmer And The Cowman (Should Be Friends)” is also a bubbly way to start things up after the break, led by “Aunt Eller” and Farmer (and local Marshall) “Cord Elam” (played by Derek Isaza) before they’re joined by the rest of the cast for an out-and-out full-on musical extravaganza. Throw in plenty of flashy and frenetic choreography jam packed with some honest-to-goodness high-falutin’ fancy footwork as it escalates into a spirited square-dance with loads of high kicks and pirouettes, and this is easily the blue-ribbon prize-winner of the entire show. Then again, arguably the key anthem for many is the title number, which has been fashioned as another first-class chorale endeavor late in the show–but it sure enough is worth waiting for!
Brimming with a passel of genuinely dazzling dancing, it’s fair to say that in the capable hands of Mesdames Dawson and Lawson and their cast, this production doesn’t merely thrive—it electrifies! This too, is another example of how this particular version surpasses its predecessors by defying expectations. Adding to it is how Ms. Lawson and Ms. Dawson have embedded little bits of vivacious movement into numerous ‘smaller’ numbers which make them ingeniously ‘stand out’ all the more. These incidents may not be so anticipated, but each number benefits immensely from their inclusion. At the close of the first act, the ballet, “Out Of My Dreams”–widely considered the show’s choreographic centerpiece, is a splendid group effort, introduced and liltingly sung by “Laurey” before ‘opening up’ into her imagination and depicting her courtship with “Curly”. Starting off as an elegant ‘pas-de-deux’, before long it turns nightmarish by “Jud’s” threatening encroachment. ‘Starring’ Angela Mattern as ‘Dream Laurey”, Edvan Perez as “Dream Curly” and Reid Harris as “Dream Jud”, they–and all the other dancers involved, have done an astounding job (this could be worth the price of a ticket alone!) At turns, manic, graceful, athletic, and thoroughly amazing—and with more than a few nods to the show’s original, legendary Choreographer, Agnes DeMille–it propels us into intermission in blithe, brilliant and breathless style! The ballet also cleverly follows “Will” and “Annie’s” romantic intrigues too—and they similarly make inspired use of the pair playing these roles throughout. “Annie” is also given several more episodes to demonstrate her considerable talents at “tripping the light fantastique” including her parts in other sizable numbers like “Many A New Day”, “The Farmer And The Cowman” and “All Er Nuthin’”. Our “Will” meanwhile, is quite a dexterous danseur in his own right– leading a boisterous Boot-Scootin’/Tap interlude disguised as a cowboy hoedown in the midst of “Kansas City”, while the chorus show-off their collective terpsichorean prowess with some pristine ‘pull-backs’, in-unison trenches, and a nifty old Vaudevillian maneuver called “Jumping Over The Log” (–consider this one of the show’s high-steppin’ high-water marks early in the on-stage doings.) Even the entr’acte is a fully choreographed foot-stompin; barn-stormin’ bonanza with lots of leaps, rolls, acrobatics, and even a sassy kick-line! (Just observing all that high-octane, seemingly inexhaustible energy on “The Gem’s” stage is bound to leave spectators a little winded—but loving every second of it!)
Bryan Fraser is our intrepid protagonist, “Curly McLain’. An A-Plus leading man if ever there was one, Fraser has a rich baritone voice—making his preliminary chanson, “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning” a truly ‘beautiful’ way to begin the proceedings. He follows this up quickly with an equally melodic “Surrey With The Fringe On Top”—yet another standard from the show’s archetypical score (Go ahead—just try to keep your toes from tapping along to this one!)
He also has a gifted way with a throw-away gag or pun and “Curly” has plenty of these. Every bit as enthralling though, is how Fraser paints “Curly” as a little rough around the edges but always genial and charismatic. Practically upon hearing his opening stanzas we’re square in this guy’s corner rooting for him, hoping he’ll get the girl by final curtain. “Who’s the best broncobuster in seven counties?” he asks “Laurey” at the start, playing up his supposed bravado. Naturally at this point though, she’s not buying any of it, for as with any good love story, the path of true love never runs smooth, and ‘Laurey” isn’t against keeping her Cowboy-toy guessing about her devotion (for a while anyway.) Nonetheless, this just makes us cheer on “Curly” and “Laurey” that much more. As “Curly’s” would-be sweetheart (and the story’s leadinglady,) “Laurey Williams”, Erica Baldwin expands her already commendable list of achievements with “One More Productions”. She utterly charms time and again—a prime example being how she infuses “Laurey’s” spunky “Many A New Day” (and its second act reprise) with a lovely expressiveness that’s only heightened by the top-of-the-line choreography that goes along with it. This precedes “Laurey’s’ Act-Break stunner, “Out Of My Dreams” which again takes us all by delicious surprise (There’s plenty of shining moments like that all through this production.) Together, Fraser and Baldwin share much of the stage most of the time, while continually reinforcing what a powerhouse team they really make, starting with “People Will Say We’re In Love” which proves to be a fantastic ‘fit’ for both partner’s voices (They also unite for a stirring crescendo at its conclusion!)
Bushels of laudable support is furnished by Gio Martinez as “Ado Annie Carnes”, who herself has fabulous comic-timing as “Laurey’s” overtly flirtatious friend. It’s “Annie” who gets all of the best lines and Ms. Martinez dispatches each one with spot-on comedic proficiency. Her major descant, “Just A Girl Who Cain’t Say No” is a definite Act-One highlight (complete with a built-in encore) featuring some of the sharpest word-play ever heard in an R & H show. In fact, this number itself accentuates just how witty Hammerstein’s script decidedly is: “Other girls play coy and hard to catch, but other girls ain’t having any fun!” she breezes; “Every time I lose that wrestling match, I have a funny feeling that I’ve won!” Right up there beside her is Matthew Rangel who exhibits some terrific swagger, making for an especially likable and winning presence as the hapless ‘cowpoke’ “Will Parker”. This is an exhilarating change for Rangel who himself broadens his towering list of vivid characterizations in recent times. He excels leading “Kansas City” which ranks as one of the show’s crowning achievements early on, then later, his reprise of “Cain’t Say No’ opposite “Annie” is inundated with laughs. As a couple, “Will’ and “Annie’s” humorous, “All Er Nuthin’ ” is the side-splitting jewel in Act Two which incorporates yet another, more playful, ballet intermezzo inserted in between verses.
Every tale needs a villain though and James Scognamilo also makes for a picture-perfect adversary as the ominous farmhand “Jud Fry”. In grand possession of a lush baritone voice himself, he puts this to artful use in the course his duet with “Curly”, “Pore Jud Is Daid”, while providing some pleasant harmony betwixt the pair. Dark or not, it’s a comic crowd-pleaser toward the close of Act One. Moreover, the restoration of Jud’s musical soliloquy “Lonely Room” gives him further opportunity to show-off his own rock-solid singing chops. Magnificently delivered (if a bit on the sinister side,) the applause afterwards couldn’t have been more enthusiastic and for excellent reason—it is without a doubt a magnificent inclusion!
Of course, as anyone the least bit familiar with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s body of work are readily aware, they always contain a wise older female character–and it all started with this show. Undertaking this position is Beth Hansen—herself a frequent guest at “The Gem”, who completely transforms herself into “Laurey’s” sagacious (and a bit world-weary) “Aunt Eller” (and the effect is magnificent!) She gives us a full-blooded frontier woman—tough, but tender when she needs to be, and her presence is arguably the whole ‘backbone’ of all the goings-on. Although “Aunt Eller” doesn’t grant Ms. Hansen many chances to showcase her superb vocal talent, she does hand over sublime support to numbers like “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’” (she’s the one it’s being sung to,) “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and “Kansas City”. Yet it’s in Act two that’s categorically “Aunt Eller’s” time to shine leading the act opener, “The Farmer And The Cowman”. As part of her role, she also supplies her share of levity—often bantering opposite “Ali Hakim”, a Persian Peddler. Appearing as that self-same traveling merchant and trader, Peter Crisafulli too, also builds on his triumphs as “Ali Hakim”. His ‘big’ moment comes with the inclusion of Hakim’s harangue-set-to-music: “It’s An Outrage”. Backed by the male ensemble, Crisafulli altogether flourishes while ‘seriously melodramatizing’ this delightful seldom-heard-but-hilarious ode to the ‘hazards’ of matrimony on the dyed-in-the-wool single male. Noteworthy as well is Hannah Clair as “Gertie Cummings”—the lass with the ‘robust’ laugh. Ms. Clair may not make her ingress until later in the show, but she’s gleefully unforgettable once she does, effectively putting “Hakim’s” carefree bachelor days firmly behind him.
The bare-bones Scenic Design favors an expansive outline of a farmhouse in front of which, placed at the rear of the stage, is situated the orchestra, where Conductor Nick Bravo expertly leads the 13-piece orchestra (not only are they something to hear, watching them all play ‘live’ amplifies the total theatrical experience!) Jon Hyrka’s Lighting Designs also increase the show’s enjoyment quotient substantially, often using colored lights to intensify or ‘punctuate’ the feelings being expressed on stage. One fundamental way he does this is by employing strong shafts of hot and highly focused ‘side lighting’. Take, for example, the way “Ali Hakim’s” frenetic “It’s A Scandal” is bathed in ‘shocking’ red at peak moments to not-so-subtly convey his panic at the mere thought of being tied down in matrimony (–and to only one girl yet!) Or the sickly green glow that bathes the stage all the way through “Curly” and “Jud’s” confrontation, “Pore Jud Is Daid”.
Not to be outdone either are the meticulously accurate period costumes by Luis Cornejo and Karl Setlak. Consider “Laurey’s” opening garb—not at all the wholesome (—and ‘Hollywood Pretty’–) gingham dress of Shirley Jones in the 1955 big screen adaptation; instead, we’re treated to a drab pair of dusty bib-overalls such as would be legitimately worn by a farm gal in the heart of the ‘Western Wilds” of 1903. Not that their selections don’t have vibrance and color where required though, as with “Ado Annie’s” bold red dress and white linen pinafore (and matching white linen bonnet with a red-ribbon hatband) which go nicely with “Will’s” own red plaid shirt worn beneath a black leather vest (–with fringe.) By the same token, “Curly” dons a pair of brawny brown chaps, and as befits ‘the good guy’, a large ivory Stetson. All these clothing selections are steadfastly ‘finished’ and flattered by Alan Collin’s comparably authentic Wig Designs.
Why wait for “the wind to come sweepin’ down the plain”?! Having opened on Saturday, February 18th , “Oklahoma” is slated for a six-week run through Sunday, March 26th, 2023, at “The Gem Theatre”, located at 12852 Main Street in Garden Grove, CA. Showtimes are Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM, while a Post-Curtain “Talk Back” with the cast and crew will be held on Friday, March 3rd. Tickets may be obtained by calling “One More Productions” at (714) 741-9550, ext. 221, online by logging onto: www.GemOC.com , or by visiting the “Gem Theatre” box-office on Tuesdays and Thursdays between the hours of 2:00 PM and 6:00 PM. Special discounts for Seniors (65+) are being offered while “Student Rush” tickets for Thursday and Friday performances are also available at the Box Office (one ticket per valid Student ID.)
Production Photos by Ron Lyon www.ronlyonphoto.com Courtesy of “One More Productions” www.theGEMoc.com Special Thanks to Damien Lorton, Nicole Cassesso, Dan Baird, Shoko Araki, Ron Lyon Nick Bravo, Kady Lawson, Brittany Rose Dawson, and to the cast and crew of “One More Productions” 2023 Production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” for making this story possible.