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THEATER REVIEW / OKLAHOMA : Spunk and Humor Still Make a Hit : The Ojai show opened to a packed audience, which got into the spirit by singing the familiar lyrics.


Certainly a highlight of the recent Tony Awards was the 50th anniversary tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" Venerable choreographer Agnes DeMille represented the show's creators.

But that was only one celebration of the show. Another--closer to home, if less star-studded--is the current presentation of "Oklahoma!" in bucolic Ojai, by Santa Barbara's Starlight Entertainment theater company.

Truth is, the production (Starlight's 58th and its second in Ojai) gives an idea of the durability of the show--Rodgers and Hammerstein's first, spunkiest and funniest collaboration. Even on the small Ojai Arts Center Theater stage, and with a four-piece band backing the cast, the music, lyrics and book stand tall.

The wall-to-wall opening night audience Friday got into the spirit of the occasion early, singing the lyrics to the (instrumental) overture.

Ambitious staging by director Tom Zeiher features a cast of 18 singer-dancers plus those four musicians. While spunky young lovers Laurey (Shelley-Leigh Styff) and Curly (Vince Lodato) are the play's heroes, it's the character actors who all but run away with the show--Doug Friedlander as Ali (the world's least convincing Persian) Hakim; Gabriel De la Vega as menacing but somehow sympathetic Jud Fry; Nelson Fox as the dopey, sincere and very loud Will Parker; and Susan Wiltfang as Ado Annie, the girl who (bless her) "cain't say 'no.' " And watch for Marianne Ilges as Gertie, the girl with the world's most grating laugh.

Curly and Laurey, of course, get most of the best-known songs--"Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "Surrey with the Fringe on Top," "People Will Say We're in Love," "Many a New Day" and "Out of My Dreams"; but Hammerstein's wittiest lyrics are reserved for Annie, Will's "Kansas City," and Ali Hakim's "It's a Scandal! It's an Outrage!"

Juli Lyon-Korten choreographed the show with simple effectiveness; Elmer Bladow's stage design makes much of a limited space; and Debi Lawrence's costumes are suitable--even the work clothes' just-out-of-the-washer cleanliness seems appropriate in this context.


"Oklahoma!" continues Friday through Sundays through July 3 at the Ojai Arts Center Theater, 113 S. Montgomery St. in Ojai. Performances are at 8 Friday and Saturday nights, and 2 Sunday afternoons. Tickets are $13 for adults, and $8 for students and children under 12, with all seats unreserved. There is a $1 discount for seniors or members of a group. For further information or reservations (Visa or Mastercharge accepted), call 964-3688.

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