by Neena Strichart
Although I get in my fair share of local entertainment, I am often envious of our writers who have the opportunity to see theatre productions and then tell the world in print what they thought of them. Once in a while one of our reviewers needs to take a night off, and I am happy to fill his or her seat. Other times I assert my authority, the little I have, put in my dibs to see and then write the play review myself.
When I learned that Oklahoma! was being produced by Musical Theatre West (MTW), I knew I’d be in for a night of bliss if I had the chance to attend. As it turned out, I got the gig.
The reason we are running the review in my column rather than in the body of the paper on a Culture page is that I didn’t feel it would be appropriate to do anything else. Oklahoma! is my favorite musical. Whether I saw it on stage at a dinner theatre in Orange County (back in the ‘70s) or more opulently in Los Angeles at the Pantages Theatre in the 21st century, I loved it. I will watch the movie version on television every chance I get or pop in the DVD on a whim. The story and music take me away to somewhere wonderful, magical and a little unsettling. Thank goodness Mom enjoys it almost as much as I do. As she tells it, she saw it in on stage in New York back in the ‘40s, so naturally I chose her to be my date.
For those who know the storyline, I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice it to say it revolves around two pairs of young sweethearts in the summer of 1907. Oklahoma was still a territory at that time, and the land was still a bit wild and free. The farmers and cowmen did a bit of feuding between themselves over the topic of fences, and folks were gearing up for the territory to be named a state.
In this production, the audience was brought up to speed quickly with a beautifully lighted stage with enough scenery and props to help move the story along without being overbearing. The colors were so crisp and vibrant, I felt as though I was seeing the show in Technicolor. The skill of the sound director was evident as every word of the more than a dozen songs and clever dialogue were clear as a bell. Heck, Mom didn’t even need her hearing aids!
Being able to hear and see what is happening on stage is certainly important for any theatre-goer, but more, or at least equally important, is the quality of what is heard and seen. The singing voices of MTW’s actors playing Curly (Bryant Martin) and Laurey (Madison Clare Parks) were phenomenal. I ended up with goosebumps from head to toe listening to them belt out their rendition of “People Will Say We’re in Love.” Knowing every word of every song adds to the fun for me, but imagine my surprise when they started playing a tune I didn’t recognize. “Lonely Room” was then sung by the only real antagonist character in the play, Jud Fry (Christopher Newell). A hired hand on Laurey’s Aunt Eller’s ranch, Jud is an unkempt and scary kind of loner. In most productions, Jud’s only singing part is part of a duo with Curly in a tongue-in-cheek ditty, “Poor Jud is Daid.” However, MTW’s powers-that-be took the rather serious song from the original stage play and added it for Jud, in my eyes, making him a bit of a more sympathetic character.
Other stand-out performances were given by the wonderful actors portraying Aunt Eller (Saundra McClain), Will Parker (Luke Hawkins), Ado Annie (Teya Patt) and Ali Hakim (Amin El Gamal). These fine actors all came together in a way rarely seen in casts working together on stage for such a short run. Now, don’t think Oklahoma! is just lots of singing and dialogue, although there’s nothing wrong with that! The dancing is as good as anything I’ve ever seen in a musical production. Especially memorable is the rather nightmarish Dream Ballet. No singing there, folks, just beautifully haunting modern and ballet-style dancing.
Toward the end of the evening, I knew the title song, “Oklahoma,” was just around the corner, and I was so looking forward to it. As the music rose louder and the voices came together, I found myself sobbing into my hands. Holy cow, I hadn’t expected that! I did feel a bit vindicated later when the lights came up and I saw other women dabbing tissues at the corners of their eyes.
This is the final weekend for MTW’s Oklahoma!, and I encourage you to see it with someone you love, or like, or go with a casual stranger, or go by yourself– just don’t miss it.
Oklahoma! continues at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton St., on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, through March 3. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. Due to overwhelming demand, shows have been added Saturday, March 2 at 2pm and Sunday, March 3 at 7pm. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased through the MTW Box Office at (562) 856-1999 ext. 4 or online at musical.org .