By Pamela Diamond | Newport Beach Indy
Homespun as a gingham apron and genuine as Curly’s smile, Newport Theatre Arts Center’s lively production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” blows a breath of fresh sea air into the venerable musical, creating a fun evening for all.
The much loved story of cowboy Curly McCain’s courtship of spirited and independent farm girl Laurey Williams, set against a backdrop of settlers struggling to survive in the soon-to-be-Oklahoma’s Indian Territory at the turn of the last century, has its roots in a 1931 play by Lynn Riggs called “Green Grow the Lilacs.”
Not exactly a box office smash when the Theater Guild first presented it, the show did catch the eye of Theresa Helburn, one of the Guild’s producers. After seeing a summer stock production that had included traditional folk songs and square dances, Helburn was inspired, believing that the play had promise as a musical.
She reached out to acclaimed composer Richard Rodgers who, needing a new partner, reached out to the equally respected librettist Oscar Hammerstein II. The rest, as they say, is history.
The original Broadway production of “Oklahoma,” directed by Rouben Mamoulian with choreography by Agnes DeMille, opened March 31, 1943 at St. James Theatre in New York City to tremendous critical and popular success.
Numerous revivals and awards later, “Oklahoma” is recognized as having kicked off the “golden age” of American musical theater, and with that first collaboration Rodgers and Hammerstein changed forever the way musicals are both presented and perceived.
The innovative duo was instrumental in defining the “book musical,” where both the songs and the dances are cohesive and relevant to a fully-fledged storyline, with musical themes and repeated motifs that tie the music to the book.
Orange County audiences can see how that all “plays” out – or just enjoy revisiting a perennial favorite – with NTAC’s version of “Oklahoma,” directed by Phyllis Gitlin and choreographed by Dimyana Pelev, which runs through June 30.
The intimate community theater, a local favorite since its opening in 1979, presents one of the biggest productions the 90-seat venue has seen, but Gitlin was up to the challenge, utilizing the center aisle to carry action on and off stage, thereby drawing the audience in and creating one cozy community.
From the minute Curly –a jauntily confident Luke Carlsen – appeared at the back of the room, legs bowed, black cowboy hat tipped back and lungs filled with the joy of a clear country day, singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” Saturday night’s anthem was set, with Hammerstein’s amazing lyrics continuing to embody the spirited life of these settlers with such classic songs as “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” People Will Say We’re in Love,” and the show-stopping “Oklahoma!”
Channeling an “Of Mice and Men” vibe, Roy Davis was appropriately creepy as Jud, with Carlsen ably amping up the tension and imbuing their scenes together with an underlying emotional tautness. Against their somewhat cautious punches and grappling, however, the realistically ribald earthiness of Ado Annie Carnes’ (Hayley Jackson) and Gertie Cummings’ (Kiersten Kanaster) cat fight was sheer pleasure to watch, and although the danced dream sequence came off a bit crowded and uneven, its emotionality stayed strong and true.
A fast-paced, spirited romp, NTAC’s “Oklahoma” left audiences smiling while still managing to evoke the drama inherent in territory life
Afterwards, a glass jar in the lobby requested donations for Oklahoma’s recent tornado victims, a poignant testament to the time-tested toughness of its people and resonant of one of the lines in the play: “Things happen to people…You’ve got to be hardy.”
“Oklahoma” plays at Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, through June 30. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Prices range from $21-$26. For tickets and more information call (949) 631-0288 or go to ntaconline.com.