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Theater Review

Nothing Plain in Breezy UCI 'Oklahoma!'

April 28, 1999|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In his program notes for UC Irvine's revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!," director Robert Cohen finds much social import in the musical.

He mentions World War II and the Holocaust. He talks about assimilation and brotherhood. He reveals that the surname of the play's Persian peddler, Ali Hakim, was derived by Hammerstein from a Yiddish word meaning "clever guy." He even stretches painfully to equate the show's villain, Jud Fry, with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. All of which he apparently found mixed in the Oklahoma soil under the cornstalks.

Fortunately for Rodgers and Hammerstein, and for this revival, Cohen then seemed to forget all his search for intent and directs the production as just what it is--a joyous, grand musical whose major contribution to American theater was its technical and dramatic innovations.

As in Lynn Riggs' play "Green Grow the Lilacs," on which "Oklahoma!" was based, the simplistic plot is a melodrama of boy wants girl and, eventually, boy gets girl. Its sentiments are jingoistic; after all it premiered in 1943, and its Americana is not much advanced beyond George M. Cohan's.

Cohen's staging is marvelous, full of vaudeville shtick and ripe with larger-than-life performances like those typical of its time. Donald McKayle's choreography here replaces Agnes DeMille's original but is as buoyant--particularly for the males--athletic, muscular and earthy.

There is a naivete about these characters that doesn't exist in America or anywhere else today and which was a great morale booster in 1943. That feeling is still refreshing in our own dark world, and Cohen and McKayle capture it beautifully.

In Cohen's brisk tempos, and through Dennis Castellano's delicious Broadway pit-band musical direction, the proceedings breathe with crackling life.

Kurt Robbins and Erin Crouch are delightful as shy lovers Curly and Laurey. Both have strong voices that are right at home in Rodgers' big melodies.

Danny Bergold's Will Parker is a shiner, singing and dancing with all stops out, but he's almost upstaged by Beth Malone's eccentric, hilarious, original Ado Annie, whether she's singing, dancing or just standing there.

Joe Osheroff's Jud is as frightening as he's supposed to be and handles his almost operatic solo, "Lonely Room," with an underlying vulnerability that adds depth to the number. John Dolton is very good as Andrew Carnes, Ado Annie's doltish father.

From Megan Byrne's raucous and warm Aunt Eller, to Ken Ward's Ali Hakim, stereotypical but full of rich humor, to Crista Flanagan's joke of a screeching, giggling Gertie, the supporting cast provides fire and energy.

* "Oklahoma!," Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. $14-$16. Ends Saturday. (714) 854-4646. Running time: .

Megan Byrne: Aunt Eller Murphy

Kurt Robbins: Curly McLain

Erin Crouch: Laurey Williams

Danny Bergold: Will Parker

Joe Osheroff: Jud Fry

Beth Malone: Ado Annie Carnes

Ken Ward: Ali Hakim

Crista Flanagan: Gertie Cummings

Jon Dolton: Andrew Carnes

A Drama at UCI Mainstage production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Directed by Robert Cohen. Musical direction: Dennis Castellano. Choreography: Donald McKayle. Scenic design: Gordon Richins. Lighting design: Shelly Callahan. Sound design: Adam Fillius. Costume design: Rae Robison. Stage manager: Richard T. Ballering.

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