The watershed musical Oklahoma! represents a major undertaking for a small theater company. Altarena Playhouse’s revival brings back the nostalgia for that period in theatrical history and for the simpler way of life that it depicts. It fills the ear with beautiful music and some of theater’s most memorable tunes, including the opening song that forever changed musical theater, Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’; the beautiful ballad People Will Say We’re in Love; and of course, the titular Oklahoma!.
Few of us could have been around for the original Broadway production of Oklahoma! in 1943. Some may have seen a big-scale revival on the stage, but most will know it through the movie. Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein’s masterpiece is noteworthy for integrating song lyrics and dance themes into the storyline. This groundbreaking work also set a new standard in musicals for evoking a rich complex of emotions, as a result of a book with a strong dramatic arc, in addition to the laughs and love. Only 1927’s Showboat, whose lyrics were also written by Hammerstein, heralded serious themes and complex feelings that were to become commonplace after Oklahoma!. A final distinction of Oklahoma! was Agnes de Mille’s historic choreography of not only the country dancing, but the 15-minute dream ballet about Laurey’s conflicted love feelings.
Oklahoma! takes place in 1906 as the territory is poised for statehood. It tells about small town life – of hoedowns and picnic hamper auctions to raise money for the school. It tells of young love and life-long relationships, and of the inevitable town blaggard and the traveling peddler who brings new products and a touch of the outside world. What is remarkable is that two Jewish song writers from New York so ably captured the sense of this distant and exotic place with music, characters, and plot lines that have become indelibly attached to the place.
This production is presented in the round on the company’s small stage and without a fixed set. As some compensation, three walls behind the seating are painted in prairie scapes. The action is heavy with movement and expands the visual canvas by utilitizing the theater’s catwalk, balcony, and stairs as well as several vomitoria (Don’t you love that word? A vomitorium is simply an entrance passage to a stage, dating to Ancient Greece.). The standout among the creative designs is William Campbell’s lighting which is masterful in variety of intensity and location; for illumination of the murals; and even a brief appearance of kerosene lanterns.
The cast is game and enthusiastic and mostly adept for community theater. Standouts come from some of the juicier roles. Shelby Stewart plays a perky and vivacious Ado Annie, the girlfriend side of the secondary romance. Her voice is strong, but the style called for, particularly for her signature song I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say No is not designed to display the singer’s fine tone. Rather she conveys a controlled caterwauling, which she does well. Billy Raphael personifies the often deceitful Ali Hakim, the fast talking Persian peddler of the Plains, with a patois and appearance that channels the great mid-century film actor Akim Tamiroff. And he sings his highlight number It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage! with great mock shock. Finally, Wayne Roadie captures the menacing and “lookin’-for-love” outcast Jud Fry with enough humanity to evoke a bit of compassion for a sad loser.
In a theater of this size, we certainly can’t expect the production values that a big house would provide for a big scale musical like this. Crowd scenes and choreography are constrained. Director Megan McKinley Beaudreau wisely chooses to limit the dream ballet to about three minutes, as a full version would be demanding on dancers and audience alike in this space. However, a great advantage of the intimate setting is that the full look and personality of each performer comes out, and overall, they hit the mark. And whether you are already familiar with the musical or are new to this important piece of Americana, there is much to enjoy.
Oklahoma! is produced by Altarena Playhouse and plays on its stage at 1409 High Street, Alameda, CA through November 5, 2017.