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THEATER REVIEWS : 'Oklahoma!' Returns, Wearing Age Well : The classic musical play's blend of comedy and high drama still shines in latest production by Conejo Players.


For a piece of living history that's more than 50 years old, "Oklahoma!" remains in pretty good shape--more so, it might be argued, than most other revolutionary works of art.

When it opened in 1943, "Oklahoma!"--the first collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II--set several precedents; enough of them, in fact, that the term musical play came to stand for "Oklahoma!" and its progeny to distinguish them from their predecessors, which more closely related to Viennese-styled operettas. One of the first shows to use ballet to further the action, "Oklahoma!" also integrated song and dramatic action like no play before it.

But that's stuff from the textbooks. What's important to audiences is the show's interesting blend of comedy and high drama, and a collection of songs so strong that its first three numbers: "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" and "Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City" became standards in short order, and that the rest of the score--including "People Will Say We're in Love," "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No" and the title number--is just as strong.

In the local production running now through May 13 under the auspices of the Conejo Players, John K. Wilson stars as Curly McLain, the handsome young cowboy whose flirtations with the lovely Laurey (Heidi Maureen Goodspeed) threaten to erupt into something strong any moment unless menacing ranch-hand Jud Fry (Damian Gravino) causes the serious trouble that he's easily capable of.

Curly and Laurey's courtship is amusing in its own right, but further and broader comedy is provided by Gabriel Arciniega as "Persian" peddler Ali Hakim and Anne Shedd as the obliging, constantly love-struck Ado Annie, whose affections shift between the cunning Ali and naive cowboy Will Parker (Thomas A. Cunningham). Gene Bernath plays Ado Annie's father, Linda Smith is Laurey's Aunt Eller and Sandy Gray is seen as Curly's sometimes-girlfriend, Gertie Cummins.

Linda Stiegler directs the cast of nearly 30, with choreography by Carol Gwynn Barnes. The orchestra, with even more members than the cast, is hidden backstage and conducted by Mike Stanley.

Saturday night's performance was a bit shaky in spots but should come together in the future.


* WHAT: "Oklahoma!"

* WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 13.

* WHERE: Conejo Players Theater, 351 S. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks.

* HOW MUCH: $8 general admission Thursdays and Sundays, $10 Friday and $12 Saturday.

* FYI: Discounts are available for groups, children under 12 and seniors.

* CALL: 495-3715.

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