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THEATER REVIEW / 'OKLAHOMA!' : This Production Gives New Life to Musical : A talented cast and a new artistic director make the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera revival the best one so far.

September 30, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This is far from the first revival of "Oklahoma!" the Central Coast has seen in the 50th anniversary year of the show that redefined the Broadway musical. And it probably won't be the last.

But the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera production is hands-down the best so far, and one that would make composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II proud.

And probably a little relieved, to know their fledgling collaboration can still keep audiences flocking to this idealized homage to turn-of-the-century prairie settlers and the quintessential American values they lived by.

As the familiar lyrics form on our own lips even before they escape the singers' mouths, it's difficult to imagine there was anything revolutionary about that fringe-topped surrey or that expansive meadow with its light golden haze.

Yet Rodgers and Hammerstein were so nervous about this untested musical form, with its compact story line delivered almost entirely in song, that they felt compelled to build enthusiasm into the show's title punctuation.

The point was evidently made--"Oklahoma!" spawned the dynasty of Rodgers and Hammerstein hits that have become the main bill of fare for groups like the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera. Appropriately enough, with this staging of the mother of all book musicals, the SBCLO has reached a new plateau in its quest for ever-increasing professionalism.

Much of the credit goes to the company's new artistic director, Charles Ballinger, who personally directed this season opener. Ballinger's most notable achievement here is in narrowing the traditional gap between very talented leads and the surrounding community-theater elements (volunteer performers and budget-conscious production values). The result is in staging that is particularly well-integrated.

You couldn't ask for more picture-perfect wholesome lovebirds than Stuart Larson as Curly, the free-roamin' cowboy with an independent spirit, and Pamela Winslow as Laurey, the rancher gal who tames him by capturing his heart.

Both are blessed with exceptional singing voices, and make their characters' transition from initial friction to true love seem fresh and heartfelt rather than obligatory.

Amy Griffin brings deft flirtatious comedy to Ado Annie, the gal whose preference in fellers is "Whichever one I'm with," while the traveling peddler Ali Hakim (Nathan Holland) and cattle roper Will Parker (Brad Bradley) vie hilariously for her affections. As the marriage-bound Will, Bradley proves a triple threat with perfect comic timing, character-infused singing, and precision dancing (including a split that earns an audience ovation at the end of "Kansas City").

Fred Lehto is suitably surly and menacing as the farmhand obsessed with Laurey, though he pales beside Jack Greenman's brooding presence in the PCPA Theaterfest production earlier this summer.

In other respects, though, the SBCLO staging is a better realization of Rodgers and Hammerstein's indomitably triumphant vision.

Director Ballinger races us through at an engaging gallop, aided considerably by Michael Barnard's lively choreography that makes no concessions to the amateur ensemble.

Original costumes built for the production by Scott A. Lane reflect a well-suited ruggedness. Gone but hardly lamented are the painted backdrops of low budgets past--Mark Morton's set designs are fully constructed, nicely detailed, and illuminated to dramatic effect by lighting designer Jeff Flowers.

Very little could make the evening more enjoyable and still be "Oklahoma!"--we should all look this good at 50.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Oklahoma!" Performed through Oct. 24 at the Granada Theatre, 1216 State St., in Santa Barbara, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18 to $29.50 (adults), and $9 to $13.75 (children, weekdays and matinees only). Call (805) 966-2324 for reservations or further information.

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