SAN DIEGO — Richard Rodgers' and Oscar Hammerstein's first musical collaboration can't possibly be as exciting today as it was in 1943--we're just too different--but the Starlight Opera's "Oklahoma!" is full of simple pleasures.
The first of these is the gorgeous actor, Chuck Wagner, crooning Curly's "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' " from a corn patch "planted" along the side of the Starlight Bowl. Wagner's voice is as pleasing as his blond good looks, wonderful assets for the romantic lead in Hammerstein's turn-of-the-century plot.
The effect is slightly hampered by the Starlight sound system, which blares Wagner's voice from ill-placed speakers at either side of the huge stage. Most of the crowd missed Curly's dramatic entrance, perhaps wondering where the male voice was coming from as they stared at the lone woman on stage (Priscilla Allen in a warm portrayal of Aunt Eller). Lighting designer Bill Gorgenson's spotlight on Wagner was useless against the terrors of these infamous speakers, which continued their jarring antics throughout the show.
Our hero, in tight, full-length chaps and boots, soon arrives on stage, where Peter Wolf's painterly interpretation of prairie life tempts us into believing we're in Indian Territory--Oklahoma just before it was tamed into statehood.
A variety of painted "buildings" suffice to depict Aunt Eller's farmhouse, where the fresh young Laurey (the object of Curly's honorable intentions) resides; the dreary smokehouse where the leeringly scummy Jud Fry nurtures his obsession for the innocent girl, and the barnyard setting where the locals gather for a chummy dance among the cowboys and the farmers.
The plot, based on Lynn Riggs' play, "Green Grow the Lilacs," was considered daring for musical theater in the 1940s. Today, it seems as contrived as the peddler Ali Hakim's (Jim Marshall) sweet-talking pitch to the girl who "cain't say no," Ado Annie (Cornelia Whitcomb).
With Marshall, Whitcomb and James C. Christian, as Annie's cowboy suitor, Will, supplying most of the comedy and plenty of singing (all three top-notch), Wagner's Curly and Andrea Roth's Laurey are free to tangle themselves up in the most uninspired lovers' quarrel ever written.
Don't look for logic here. This girl rejects the handsome cowboy, whom she really loves, for some silly reason, agreeing to go to the dance with the hired hand Jud (a nasty-looking, unshaven Richard Kinsey) who frightens her so much she's afraid to go near him. The fact that Jud collects pornographic pictures, looks like he just rolled in from six months on the trail, has a mysterious past and inspires Laurey with a terrible nightmare, does not stop this young woman from pursuing her dangerous decision.
Curly's "heroic" efforts to win her back include hanging out with a flirty farmgirl (Jane Bishop) whose piercing laugh is much overdone in this production, and trying to convince Jud to hang himself in the smokehouse. The latter endeavor only makes sense as an excuse for the two to trade harmonies (quite nice ones) in "Poor Jud Is Daid."
Somehow this all works out, of course, if we overlook the leaps in logic. Ado Annie gets her man (the right one), Laurey falls into Curly's arms and everyone sings about their favorite state.
It's probably not worth grumbling that the painted backdrop of rolling farmland does not reflect the changed settings, or that the woodland scrim used in the dream ballet is covered with shadowed tree spots when it should be transparent.
What is important is that "Surrey With the Fringe on Top," "People Will Say We're in Love," and, of course, "Oklahoma" are all sung by beautifully capable voices, giving Milton Greene's orchestra something interesting to do between Rodgers' uninspiring overtures.
Agnes DeMille's original choreography (her first for a Broadway musical) has been nicely reset by Pepper Clyde, making just enough demands on the chorus to keep the cowboys and farmers kicking their heels and the girls swirling their yards of pastel ruffles (tons of very pretty costumes "coordinated" by Tara).
Local ballerina Denise Dabrowski stands out among the well-trained dancers. The dream ballet sequence is lovely, with Dabrowski capturing hearts as the "Dancing Laurey." She is much more expressive through her dancing than Roth is capable of as the waking Laurey, saddled as she is with the banal dialogue considered sufficient for musical heroines.
The cast is pleasing overall--Roth for her sweet simplicity, Wagner for his melting looks and strong voice, Kinsey for his scariness, Whitcomb for balancing Ado Annie's innocent promiscuity, Christian and Marshall for their well-wrought antics as Ali and Will.
Director Paul de Rolf was wise to give much attention to the favorite songs and abundant dances of "Oklahoma!" The musical may have outgrown its impressiveness, but this production preserves its charm.
"OKLAHOMA!" Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Original dances by Agnes DeMille. Directed by Paul de Rolf. Dances restaged by Pepper Clyde. Scenic design, Peter Wolf. Lighting, Bill Gorgenson. Sound, Bill Lewis. Costume coordinator, Tara. Choral director, Fred Rigby. Music director/conductor, Milton Greene. Featuring Chuck Wagner, Andrea Roth, James C. Christian, Cornelia Whitcomb, Priscilla Allen, Jim Marshall, Richard Kinsey. Nightly (except Monday) at 8:30, through Aug. 31, at the Starlight Bowl, Balboa Park. Produced by the San Diego Civic Light Opera Assn.