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THEATER REVIEW : Civic Light 'Oklahoma!' Is More Than Just OK : Southern California's youngest light opera company shows its maturity with a bright performance of the 51-year-old musical.

March 24, 1994|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To swipe an image from "Oklahoma!," there's a bright, golden haze on stage at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.

In only its third year, the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities has mounted a supremely mellow, sunny "Oklahoma!," a production that underscores the maturity of the youngest civic light opera company in Southern California.

Growing from a 2,000-member subscription base in its inaugural season to 9,000 subscribers today, the organization has made a strong impression in a short time and its production of "Oklahoma!" shines light on the reasons.

From the impressive, black-tie, 28-piece pit orchestra to the infectious ensemble dancing and the richly cast cowboys and cowgirls, there's a crispness about the show that's hard to resist. In addition, it's vocally redolent and visually vibrant, splashing you with its hot primary colors, largely from dome-like, painted drops of rolling fields and moonlit nights.

The show itself, the first collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and librettist/lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, reinvented musical theater and remains a landmark 51 years after its 1943 premiere.

Back then, with a nudge from the 1927 musical "Showboat," "Oklahoma!" was revolutionary because it was the first of a new genre: a musical play that seamlessly integrated its story and music. Until "Oklahoma!" came along, musical comedies, not musical plays, dominated Broadway.

The South Bay production, under the direction and choreography of Jon Engstrom, encapsulates the most simple of plots. The story of a good and bad ranch hand vying for the affection of a farm girl is propelled by one of theater's great scores--including the wind-swept title song, the lilting "People Will Say We're in Love," and "Kansas City."

Although not all of the lyrics were distinct from the back of the near- 1,500-seat house packed at last Saturday's matinee, the clarity is pearly smooth up front. When ruggedly handsome Perry Stephens as the hero, Curly, peels off such lyrics as "There's a bright golden haze on the meadow/The corn is as high as a elephant eye," you appreciate why the show is constantly revived.

Sure, patches of it have not dated well. The villain, for instance (Dink O'Neal's ominously brooding, threatening Jud Fry), keeps risque girlie pictures tacked up on the wall of his bunkhouse, which must have seemed a silly moral indictment even in the '40s. It's O'Neal, on the other hand, whose powerful voice steals the show.

Set in the Indian Territory just after the turn of the century and ending on the day Oklahoma became a state, the show's Protestant, white, Midwestern ethic was perfect for the middle of World War II. (In fact, the run streaked unbroken all the way into 1961.) Wisely, though, in line with other recent, local revivals of "Oklahoma!" cognizant of cultural history, the chorus here includes an African-American farm girl (the vividly swirling, energetic Definique Juniel).

Each of the remaining principals lend texture and flavor--Nora Roque's petticoated, smitten romantic heroine Laurey, Danny Roque (Nora Roque's real-life husband) as the comical Persian peddler Ali Hakim, Eric Gunhus' brash, open-faced hayseed suitor Will Parker, Paula Kay Perry's no-nonsense mistress-of-the-ranch Aunt Eller and Jillaine Avery's dim, moony comic foil Ado Annie, "jist a girl," as she sings, "who cain't say no."

Lighting designer Liz Stillwell floods the stage with dreamy, cartoony lights and John Feinstein's sound design advances the text. Agnes de Mille's original ballet choreography for Laurey's stunning dream sequence (fluidly enacted by Laura Maria Crosta, Darick Spaans and K.C. Gussler) brings down the first act curtain with panache.

Just what is a classic American musical? As a primer, this production excels at showing you.

* "Oklahoma!" Redondo Beach Per forming Arts Center, Manhattan Beach and Aviation boulevards, Redondo Beach, Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $20-$35. (310) 372-4477.

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