On Theater: 'Oklahoma!' earns the exclamation mark

It's comforting to think of "Oklahoma!" not as the scene of devastating tornadoes, but as a landmark musical comedy that retains a good share of its spunk and spirit on this, its 70th anniversary.

True, the corn still may be high as an elephant's eye (it was, after all, inspired by a dusty and unsuccessful melodrama called "Green Grow the Lilacs"), but what Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrought from it in their first collaboration was legendary, and these qualities are on full view in an excellent revival at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

Superior characterizations highlight director Phyllis Gitlin's full-bodied production, and choreographer Dimyana Pelev keeps the huge cast moving beautifully around the limited dimensions of the stage. Pianist David Dilorio constitutes a one-man orchestra providing the rich Rodgers and Hammerstein score.

From the moment that Luke Carlsen, as the swaggering but likeable cowboy Curly, ambles on stage singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," we know we're in for a beautiful day. Carlsen possesses not only the splendid voice demanded for this central role, he also has the physique and the acting chops to sell the characterization.

The object of his affection, Andrea Dennison-Laufer as the elusive Laurey, plays her character a bit more down to earth, but her vocal prowess proves equal to his in their sweetly comical duet "People Will Say We're in Love." Her role is impressively danced by Katherine Tracy in the haunting dream sequence that closes the first act.

There are several highlights in this show, but one that stands out from the rest is Hayley Jackson's chirping, flirtatious Ado Annie. Jackson is a sheer delight to watch as she balances good guy Will Parker (Tyler Marshall) and itinerant huckster Ali Hakim (Charlie Myers). This gal who "cain't say no" sinks her spurs into the comedic portion of the show superbly.

Marshall scores in his dancing tribute to Kansas City, where everything's up to date, and Myers shows a mastery of comic timing in his role as a reluctant suitor. Their contrasting styles do much to heighten the comedic tension.

As the villainous Jud Fry, the rough-hewn field hand who pursues Laurey, Roy Davis conveys the psychotic nature of the character but lacks the necessary physical intimidation. Kiersten Kanaster giggles her way neatly through the show-stealing role of Gertie Cummings. And speaking of show-stealers, keep an eye out for 10-year-old Savannah Young, who personifies cuteness.

The anchor of the Newport production is veteran actress Harriet Whitmyer, who turns the background character of Aunt Eller into a modern-day Marjorie Main, exercising her authority with good old-fashioned lung power. Adam Mahan also rates highly as Annie's shotgun-toting father, Andrew Carnes, who holds a vested interest in his daughter's future.

Pelev's brilliant choreography produces some memorable ensemble moments during such numbers as "Kansas City" and, especially, "The Farmer and the Cowman," which turns the two camps into something resembling the Jets and Sharks. Guiding the huge cast around such a small stage requires immense talent and imagination, both of which are present here.

The countrified Old West setting, by Andrew Otero, is a perfect backdrop for the considerable action employed in the production. The period costumes by Claudia Berglund and Joni Stockinger are particularly striking.

It's a good bet you'll leave the theater humming "Oh, what a beautiful show" when you experience this richly fulfilling revival of "Oklahoma!" at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Oklahoma!"

Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (2 p.m. Saturdays June 22 and 29 only) until June 30

Cost: $21 to $26

Information: (949) 631-0288 or http://www.ntaconline.com

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