Thursday, July 29, 2010


Lots of heels are being kicked up amid much whoopin' and hollerin' at the Wells Fargo Pavilion this week, as the Music Circus celebrates the American pioneering spirit with a production of 'Oklahoma!'

Based on Lynn Rigg's 1931 play, 'Green Grow the Lilacs,' 'Oklahoma!' was the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and its 1943 debut changed the course of American musical theater.

Evoking genuine emotion by integrating song and dance into a story hadn't been done before.

Thousands flocked to the theater, trying to get in, and the show ran for a then-unprecedented five years on Broadway (2,212 performances). It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1944. 'Oklahoma!' also was the first musical to have its score recorded (a common practice today).

The story is set in 1907 in the Oklahoma territory, during the days just before statehood, and tells the story of Curly, a cattleman, who's in love with Laurey, who lives on a farm with her Aunt Eller and the hired man, Jud Fry. The latter is the dark character who has his eye on Laurey, while she has her eye on Curly.

I must confess that I couldn't watch this production without thinking about hair. Both lead male actors - Jeremiah James (Curly) and Kevin Earley (Jud) - are outstanding, yet James has straight hair that looks like Prince Valiant, and a dark brooding face, while Earley seems young and earnest, and has a mop of curly hair.

The two could have switched roles, and it would have been much more believable.

Even during the ballet sequence toward the end of Act 1, dancer 'Curly' has short, straight hair while dancer 'Jud' has curls. (And dancer Jud also is much more believable as a surly, scary farmhand than Earley.)

Nit-picking? Maybe, but it was significant enough to bother me throughout the evening.

Hair aside, James gives a powerful performance as Curly. He has a strong, clear voice and an easy charm and bravado, all of which make it obvious why Laurey is so taken with him.

Laurey is played by Brandi Burkhardt; she's beautiful, feminine, coy and flirty with Curly, yet conflicted about her feelings. She also has a lovely soprano. We don't want to think about Laurey's character too deeply, since she rejects all of Curly's advances and then has her heart broken when he turns to another girl.

Call it one of this show's several 'does not compute' plot elements.

Burkhardt's dialogue was difficult to understand sometimes on opening night, perhaps because of the Music Circus sound system.

Kay Walbye's Aunt Eller is a tough old broad who has weathered the hard life of turn-of-the-20th-century Oklahoma. She deals with everyone in a sardonic if soft-hearted manner, though she's not above shooting a gun to get people's attention.

Heather Jane Rolff is a firecracker who explodes onto the stage as the zaftig, hormone-charged Ado Annie, who has 'known right from wrong since she was 10,' but still finds that she 'cain't say no' to any guy who sweet-talks her. Rolff is a delight, and she frequently steals the show.

Michael D. Jablonski plays Will Parker, hopelessly in love with Ado Annie but not overly bright: a man who rides bucking broncos in order to win $50 so he can marry the girl of his dreams, and then spends the money on gifts for her instead of bringing home the cash. Jablonski does an exuberant dance number in 'Kansas City,' describing all the wonderful new things he's seen on his trip there.

Amir Talai sets the perfect tone as Ali Hakim, the peddler who charms Annie until she decides to marry him and then, realizing that she's serious about this marriage business, must find a way to extricate himself.

Kevin Earley grows into the role of Jud Fry. Laurey fears him, but it's difficult to see why in Act 1; it becomes apparent only later, when he gives in to his rage.

Vanessa Sonon is annoyingly giddy in the brief role of Gertie Cummings, who also has her cap set for Curly. Ron Wisniski gives a solid performance as Pop Carnes, Annie's father.

If you've never seen 'Oklahoma!' - or even if you have - this Music Circus production is certain to please. Just don't look for a lot of logic in the plot ... or in the casting!

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