Updated: Jun 1
A Heart-Swelling, Beautiful Production as Fresh as Last Night's Fever Dream!
How is it that the coolest new show in Orange County right now is a 1943 musical usually regarded as a very square slice of American pie?
The answer arrives before the first song is over in Damien Lorton’s wide-awake, jolting and altogether wonderful recountal of “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!,” that most classic of American musicals, which opened last night at One More Production’s GEM Theatre in Garden Grove.
“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” is the title and the opening line of this familiar number, a paean to a land of promisingly blue skies and open spaces. But Curly, the cowboy who sings it, isn’t played with your usual solid slab of beefcake and a strapping tenor. It may be initially strange to witness one singing with a more delicate realism, but rather than 'bursting' into song, Bryan Fraser slips seamlessly from dialogue to song and back so that it seems the most natural thing in the world. This lad of the prairies is wiry and wired without a care in the world, and with just a hint of wobble in his cocky strut — so full of unchanneled sexual energy you expect him to implode.
You might even say the West was actually won on the strength of sexual hormones. We do know that Director Lorton and Choreographers Kady Lawson and Brittany Rose Dawson have managed to find rushing erotic currents in the frontier spirit, achieving not only a compelling fluidity but a galvanizing sexual charge in the show. You can feel that wild, procreative energy that, properly channeled, could indeed build a city or two in record time.
Here, Ms. Lawson and Ms. Dawson’s choreography vibrates with a sensual restlessness in search of an outlet, and they both seem to know how to shape smooth kinetic poetry from hard-edged characters and how to sketch individual personalities within an ensemble through dance.
When Oklahoma! opened on Broadway eighty years ago (that’s two years before WWII ended!), it broke the mold. From the time you take your seat, you are aware of the quality of this heart-swelling beautiful production. Written without the standard splashy opening, integrating story and songs, and with almost a fifteen-minute ballet ending the first half, it was unlike anything Broadway had seen. Back then, the music represented Rodgers and Hammerstein at their very best.
Best known for “The Sound of Music,” in America, the musical, “Oklahoma!” made them into a household name. "Oh What A Beautiful Mornin'," "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top," "I Cain't Say No," "Many A New Day," "People Will Say We're In Love," "The Farmer And The Cowman," and of course "Oklahoma!" itself form the basis of a truly memorable score.
Set in the Oklahoma territory in the early 1900s, the story revolves mainly around two triangles of characters - Laurey, a pretty young girl who lives with her Aunt Eller (Beth Hansen) and the two men that love her, the clean-cut Curly and the more sinister Jud Fry, a damaged character with a tough background; and the more light-hearted trio of Ado Annie and her two suitors, Will Parker, and a womanizing peddler, Ali Hakim.
It's telling that in the first act the guys and gals of the prairie town are most confident in sexually segregated groups. There is, on the one hand, the masculine showoff number ''Kansas City'' (charmingly led by Matthew Rangel as Will Parker) and, on the other, the devil-may-care song that was sung by Shirley Jones in the ’55 film, ''Many a New Day,'' in which the virtuous Laurey (in this case, Ms. Baldwin) leads an all-girl chorus in lessons on how to cope with men.
When the two sexes converge more fully in the terrific second-act opener, ''The Farmer and the Cowman,'' there's a heady, giddy electricity that seems always on the verge of sliding out of control, possibly into violence. They court, spark, fight and reunite, and then dance like prairie nomads.
No character is more uncomfortably aware of this danger than Ms. Baldwin's affectingly wary Laurey, who regards her two suitors, Curly and Jud, with a confused sense of both desire and terror. Laurie harbors a secret love for the cocky Curly (Bryan Fraser), who, although oozing a feverish virility, doesn't quite know how to approach her. In contrast, James Scognamillo brings unsettling depth as handyman Jud Fry, the glowering, skulking, conventional villain who wants Laurey for himself.
That her fears are not misplaced becomes clear in an encounter in Jud’s dank hovel of a home. Curly sings “Pore Jud,” in which he teasingly imagines his rival’s funeral with an ominous breathiness. The scene occurs as the two men face each other in cramped quarters of a smokehouse, and the lines between sex and violence, already blurred in this gun-toting universe, melt altogether.
Mr. Scognamillo, who portrays such a complexly tormented character that he threatens to become the show’s center, lends a charismatic, hungry loneliness to the part that’s guaranteed to haunt your nightmares. His resonant baritone conveys myriad shades of longing, despair and anger, turning (of all things) ''Lonely Room,'' Jud's solo, into one of the evening's most memorable and mesmerizing musical moments.
But it wouldn’t be a romantic comedy without the laughs! And another couple in the territory is having some troubles of their own. Matthew Rangel’s deliciously dense Will is clearly emanating a blissful endorphin haze in his pure zest for life. Will has strong feelings for his boy-crazy girl Ado Annie (a strong, country siren-voiced Gio Martinez), and impresses everyone with his dancing during the boot-scootin’ hoedown throwdowns. But Ado Annie, who tames her men like a prize bronco (“Cain’t Say No,” “All Er Nothin”), is torn between Will and the wonderfully funny and lovable rogue Ali (Peter Crisafulli), who tries everything he can to avoid marriage.
Notable performances include Ms. Hansen as the surprisingly restrained and dignified Aunt Eller, a bastion of homespun wisdom and stoicism, with a couple of genuinely endearing moments in the songs “Kansas City” and “The Farmer and the Cowman;” Tim Klega as 12-guage-totin’ rancher, Andrew Carnes, Ado Annie’s Pa, ready at a moment’s notice for a shotgun wedding if there be any sign of relational impropriety; Hannah Clair as giggling Gertie, who also has eyes for Curly; and Reid Harris’ Ike Skidmore, the farmer who hosted the box-lunch social.
This Broadway-quality production, as fresh as last night’s fever dream, has all the infectious exuberance you expect from a great musical, and Rodgers's music, ravishingly played, retains its considerable sunny charm by an incredible orchestra onstage. And combined with One More Production's harmonious set, showstopping choreography, an outstanding ensemble and all the down-home hospitality they can muster, the sky seems to stretch into eternity once again, pulsating with the promise of a land on the verge of transformation.
CELEBRATING THEIR 100TH YEAR IN GARDEN GROVE — THE GEM THEATRE, ONE MORE PRODUCTIONS — PRESENTS OKLAHOMA!; Book and Lyrics by OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II; Music by RICHARD ROGERS; Based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by LYNN RIGGS; Director/Musical Director DAMIEN LORTON; Producers NICOLE CASSESO, DAMIEN LORTON & DAN BAIRD; Choreographers KADY LAWSON & BRITTANY ROSE DAWSON; Piano-Conductor NICK BRAVO; Lighting Designer JON HYRKAS; Sound Designer DAN BAIRD; Wig Designer ALAN COLLINS; Make Up Designer BRIAN BOLANOS; Set Construction MENDENHALL PRODUCTIONS; Prop Designer & Facility Manager VICTOR EALEY; Spot Operator JEREMY HUFF; Musician Coordinator JEFF SEGAL.
WITH: BETH HANSEN • BRYAN FRASER • ERIKA BALDWIN • JAMES SCOGNAMILLO • WILL PARKER • GIO MARTINEZ • PETER CRISAFULLI • HANNAH CLAIR • TIM KLEGA • REID HARRIS • NATE NOLEN • ERIK DIAZ • DEREK ISAZA • EDVAN PEREZ • ANGELA MATTERN • LENESSA AGE • COURTNEY HAYS • JULIA IACOPETTI • BONNIE KING • KADY LAWSON • MAX SEIGEL • U/S STAND-IN TAYA FOSMIRE • REHEARSAL STAND-INS KARA DILLARD, IVA ERWIN, ALEXANDRA KYTE.
ONE MORE PRODUCTION’S “RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN’S OKLAHOMA!” runs Thursday, February 16th through Sunday, March 26th with performances at The Gem Theatre in Garden Grove. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8PM and Sundays at 2PM. Running Time with intermission approximately 3 Hours. Tickets may be purchased at www.thegemoc.com/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Ron Lyon