Review

'Oklahoma!' sweeps audience back to prairie in lush show

The first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, "Oklahoma!," which debuted in 1943, is often credited with reinventing musical theater — although "Showboat," from 1927, is invariably mentioned in the same sentence.

If not the very first "book musical," in which songs were employed to advance and deepen — rather than interrupt — the story, "Oklahoma!" remains one of the most marvelously crafted and influential.

As time passed, "Oklahoma!," with its corn-pone twang, small-town concerns and vintage chauvinism, not to mention all that gingham and blond hair, those wicker hampers and the surrey with the fringe on top, came to represent the very antithesis of avant-garde culture. Those who produce it today must wrestle with the temptations of irony and revisionism.

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But an "Oklahoma!" done straight, like Cabrillo Music Theatre's sumptuous production (heading into its final weekend), is a rare gift to audience members who yearn to lose themselves in big, old-fashioned, satisfyingly structured musicals.

For the serious Broadway junkie, fixes like this are harder and harder to find. Anybody who has absolutely had it with jukebox musicals, black-box experimentation, in-the-round staging, pared-down casts, one-person shows, anybody who yearns to sit in front of a proscenium stage with a full pit orchestra and get lost in the long-ago American prairie for three hours: This is your chance.

Cabrillo Music Theatre has suffered some financial challenges in recent years and may not be entirely out of the woods yet: Artistic director Lewis Wilkenfeld, who directed this production, took the stage before, during and after the Sunday matinee to request donations. But no belt-tightening or corner-cutting is apparent in the lavish look and sound of the show itself. The set, with its rustic farm buildings and glowing sky, as well as the colorful and diverse costumes, are rented, recycled from earlier productions. They work perfectly (If it ain't broke, etc.).

John Charron's choreography, on the other hand, is original: The principals and the many ensemble members are lithe and persuasive dancers, and the dances are complex, boisterous and lyrically as well as narratively compelling.

One of the continual surprises of "Oklahoma!" is the sexual menace that lurks just behind its pastel surface. The characters, while enacting quaint and seemingly wholesome courtship rituals, wrestle with darker erotic impulses and fears. Disconcerting images are laced throughout the show but emerge particularly in the Freudian dream into which ingénue Laurey (lovely newcomer Callandra Olivia) falls after sniffing "smelling salts" she's bought from the Persian peddler Ali Hakim (the rangy, comically gifted Damon Kirsche).

After squabbling with her suitor, Curly (golden-voiced Dan Callaway, whose charisma sneaks up on you), Laurey rashly agrees to go to the "box social" dance with her family's hired man, Jud Fry (a simultaneously frightening and sympathetic Tim Campbell). The lonely, lustful Jud wears a beard, stares at Laurey and collects dirty French postcards, the subjects of which come luridly to life onstage in Laurey's dream struggle between two potential sexual initiations. The sordid choreography from "Laurey's Dream" reappears, resonantly, in the innocent context of the country dance.

Rodgers and Hammerstein contrast the weighty Laurey/Curly/Jud love triangle with a lighthearted one: Laurey's friend Ado Annie (a delicious Melanie Mockobey) is torn between her fiancé, the rodeo star Will Parker (Josh Switzer), and the flirtatious but noncommittal Ali Hakim. The interplay between these tragic and comic versions of the same story is one of the pleasing structural parallels that make human beings feel satisfactorily entertained; "Oklahoma!" abounds in these.

Brian P. Kennedy's musical direction is lush and sweeping. The performers sing beautifully, the famous score, from "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' " to the title number, remains winning. The accents are thick but largely comprehensible, the acting broad and unpretentious. My only aural complaint was that some of the dialogue and occasionally the lyrics sounded rushed or garbled. It seemed a shame to miss a single word.

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'Oklahoma!'

Where: Cabrillo Music Theatre, Fred Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks

When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday.

Tickets: $30-$75

Info: www.cabrillomusictheatre.com, (800) 745-3000

Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes

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