It’s time to take a fresh look at Oklahoma!, which has only been around for 71 years. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s first musical is beloved for its struttin’ cowpokes and down-home romances, and of course for a score that includes “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’”, “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “Kansas City,” “People Will Say We’re in Love” and a rousing title song. But on fresh examination, it’s the show’s left turns that keep Oklahoma! interesting. The courtship of Laurey Williams by Curly McLain is an overly sincere bore, but the one between big-grinning Will Parker and man-mad Ado Annie sure ain’t. There’s also the presence of a flirtatious Persian salesman, and stranger still, a psychopathic farm hand named Jud Fry who darkens Oklahoma!’s sunniness every moment he’s on stage. And how about the extended dream sequence, complete with ballet dancer, that ends Act One? No one’s ever going to call Oklahoma! edgy, but at least it’s not nonstop cute.
Welk Resorts’ barn-like theater is an apt setting for this famed musical, running through Nov. 16, and its relative intimacy brings the singing and dancing close to the audience. The acoustics can be tinny, however, rendering a couple of the characters (RC Sands’ Pa Carnes and Sydney Blair’s Ado Annie) difficult to understand when they’re vocalizing. But the fresh-faced cast as a whole meets the expectations that come with a Broadway show as well-known as this one. While Kailey O’Donnell and Allen Everman as lovers Laurey and Curly are fine, it’s the actors occupying the character parts who shine brightest. Ado Annie is the best part in Oklahoma!, and the aforementioned Blair is a skilled comedienne with an infectious smile. Robin Lavalley earns her share of laughs as wise old Aunt Eller, and Will Huse is truly disturbing as the menacing Jud.
The costumes, provided by The Theatre Company of Upland, are cartoon-colors cheerful, and while the set is merely serviceable, there is a cameo appearance by the eponymous surrey with the fringe on top.
Like so many of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s collaborations, Oklahoma!’s legacy is assured. That doesn’t mean you’ll want to see it time and again. But if you never have, well your education in musical Americana is incomplete.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat