BWW Review: OKLAHOMA! at Palm Canyon Theatre

BWW Review: OKLAHOMA! at Palm Canyon Theatre

Fittingly, Palm Canyon Theatre has opened their 2018/2019 season with the classic Oklahoma!, deemed by many to be the foundation of the modern musical theatre. Originally appearing on Broadway in 1943, it is the first collaboration of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II, was a blockbuster hit in its original run, and has been filmed, revived, toured, and produced time and again in schools and theatres around the world. However, it's been quite a spell since it has been available to local theatregoers. PCT's production, under the direction of Derik Shopinski, is reverent to the original work, blessed with some amazing voices, boisterously staged, and absolutely delighted the audiences on its opening weekend.

In contrast to virtually all musicals written before it, instead of opening with a rousing full-stage number, Oklahoma! opens with an older lady (Suzie Thomas Wourms) sitting on an almost-bare stage, churning butter. We hear an a capella voice singing the classic, "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" as a cowboy named Curly (Christian Quevedo) makes his way down the aisle of the theatre. When he reaches the stage, he meets up with the butter-churning woman, Aunt Eller. He has come to ask her niece, Laurey (Kaitlyn Farley), to that evening's box social, but when the spunky blonde niece appears, she and Curly play a flirtatious game of not really wanting to be with each other.

For the next 2.5 hours, a battle ensues as to whether the nice, good-looking Curly, or the surly, smelly, conniving farmhand Jud Fry (Paul Grant) is going to end up with Laurey (and I offer no hints). Along the line, the residents of the area known as The Indian Territories learn that it is going to become a state known as Oklahoma! (their excitement dictates the ubiquitous exclamation mark in the title).

Despite the ground that was broken by this show in 1943, it still retained a formulistic structure. The good-looking leading lady and man are a soprano and baritone and are not expected to dance a single step. In fact, when a dream ballet is staged near the end of Act I, different performers come on to dance their roles. There is a delightful comedy duo who are friends of our leads - Ado Annie (Emilia Jimenez) and Will Parker (Anthony Nannini - and older comics Aunt Eller and a peddler named Ali Hakim (Herb Schultz). Although I could recite the majority of the comic lines by heart (I first saw this show when I was 14), there was a man behind me who loudly greeted each repartee as if it had been written last week, and I enjoyed experiencing the show through his eyes.

Farley and Quevedo each have superb voices, and classics such as "People Will Say We're in Love," "Surrey With the Fringe on Top," and "Many a New Day" were given new life. Jimenez and Nannini as the comic sidekicks were crowd pleasers, and it seemed that the audience eagerly awaited each time they returned to the stage. Wourms had the audience in her pocket from her first line, bringing plenty of frontier worldliness while still being a lady. Schultz's peddler is a running gag, delivered to us in enjoyable installments.

Frequent leading man Paul Grant, who stills sets the mark as Professor Harold Hill, was an interesting choice as Jud Fry, the villainous farm hand. We have seen him so often as a nice guy, it was difficult to say, "OK, now he's a villain this week." I would have appreciated a much grittier look for him - some dirt smudges and perhaps beard stubble on his face, patches and stains on his work clothes. As it was, he seemed like a very viable choice for Laurey. However, I understood the casting choice when he delivered "Lonely Room," one of the lesser-known numbers from the show. I will certainly remember that number now due to his powerful delivery - it literally felt like the room was shaking!

Act I's dream ballet is always a challenge, but Mat Tucker as Dream Curly, Brandy Valentine as Dream Laurey, and Samuel David as Dream Jud combined some beautiful dance elements with some great emotion. I was especially impressed with David's Dream Jud since that role is rarely required to dance in the ballet (usually, the actor playing Jud just walks through his moves).

Shopinski really excels with group numbers, doing double duty as director and choreographer. "The Farmer and the Cowhand" which opens Act II is an explosion of energy that pushes the audience back into their seats. And of course, the titular "Oklahoma!" near the end of the show is a delightful anthem that we all want to sing along to. He decided to bring a number of children into the big production numbers, and naturally, kids would have been around any events at the time. Their presence on stage gives us a sense of the frontier community, and it's also a terrific opportunity for junior thespians to experience the stage. I noticed the last name Berry appearing three times in the program and figured out that veteran character actor Alan Berry, who plays Ado Annie's father, is joined on stage by his granddaughter Abigail, and the production is co-stage managed by his wife, Marsha. Since all of the participants are volunteers, what a terrific experience for a family to share with each other.

Oklahoma! only plays one more weekend, through October 7. Tickets are available at www.palmcanyontheatre.org, or from the box office Tuesday through Sunday, 760-323-5123. The show will be followed by Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? October 18-21. Season tickets are still available, and a great way to be sure you don't miss any shows.

Photo by Paul Hayashi

Photo Credit: Peter James Zielinski

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