Nearly flawless, Cabrillo Stage’s ‘Oklahoma!’ is musical theater at its finest
Oklahoma!” first opened on Broadway in March of 1943. From its first raised curtain, it was a bona fide hit and managed to run for more than 2,000 performances. Few were surprised—and even fewer minded—that it went on to be revived numerous times thereafter, enjoying national tours and foreign productions. The 1955 film version helped fuel its success, too—it created a real star out of then up-and-coming Shirley Jones. But somewhere as the show evolved, the musical love story set against the easy-breezy plains in 1906—the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II (“Carousel,” “The King and I,” “The Sound of Music”)—managed to illuminate what it meant to be an American and, perhaps, what it is that makes us human.
Those two things are rarely found—or questioned—in the vast majority of the modern-day entertainment spectrum. That is what makes Cabrillo Stage’s choice of bringing “Oklahoma!” to life this year—70 years after it first opened—all the more inviting. Better still, the production is dedicated to the lives affected by the tornadoes that ravaged parts the state of Oklahoma in spring of this year. Even better, one of its stars, Matt Taylor, hails from Oklahoma.
A winning trifecta? You bet.
Under the direction of Kikau Alvaro, with music direction by Alice Hughes, Rodgers’ music and Hammerstein’s book and lyrics are in wonderful hands here. And the company’s take on the story—boy likes girl, girl plays hard to get, boy and girl get lassoed into some drama—has remarkable nuances that stay with you long after you leave the theater.
For starters, Matt Taylor loses himself in the role of cowboy Curly. Strapping, masculine and confident, Taylor’s infectious charm and easy-on-the-eye looks may be enough to lure audiences in, but his pitch-perfect acting technique and deep, deft, powerful vocals, alongside what seems to be a natural ability to handle both serious and comedic scenes, bring a refreshing zest to the stage. He lends a sense of passion and purpose to the role, allowing Curly to morph into a fully evolved being, and not simply just a creative cloak that an actor wears on stage for several hours.
One word: Presence. He’s got it—in spades.
You sense it upon his first entry on stage. In front of the farmhouse of his soon-to-be star-crossed love, Laurey, Taylor’s keen ability to ride the emotions of “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” is musical theater at its finest. That dynamism is present in other numbers—“The Surrey With The Fringe On Top,” “Pore Jud Is Daid,” and, most especially, in “People Will Say We’re in Love,” performed with haunting affection with Emily Marsilia.
About that creature … Marsilia goes beyond what the original script calls for, which is to infuse Laurey with generous splashes of winsome farm girl and unfettered gal. Dramatically, she’s right on the mark, but vocally, she’s a true star—oh, the notes she hits, holds and ties up in a bow for us. But there’s a believability to the vulnerable pluck she delivers here, too, and it’s a testament to both Marsilia as an actress and Alvaro as director. While Taylor’s Curly grabs you from the get-go, Marsilia’s Laurey manages to effectively heed by the script—and Alvaro’s direction it seems—and allow the character to simmer a bit, slowly giving the audience time to build an allegiance to her and her plight—my, oh my, how will she ever fend off the advances of that ominous farm hand Jud (Kevin Johnson)? In the hands of lesser skilled—or over zealous actors and directors—it would have missed the mark entirely.
This is most evident in the first act’s dramatic end piece, Laurey’s surreal dream sequence, which involves the entire company. Here Marsilia proves herself to be a bona fide triple threat, cascading with grace through a tough-to-tackle yet wonderfully executed ballet sequence. (Alvaro also serves as choreographer.)
But no two roles can hold up an entire production—not really. The magic of “Oklahoma!” lies in its resilient casting. And Alvaro and co. have done a remarkable job rallying together a robust crew, Alice Hughes as Laurey’s Aunt Eller, among them. As one of many creative tentpoles in place here, Hughes evokes both a sense of heart and spunk and we’re all the better for it.
And then there’s Jordan Sidfield and Vanessa Vazquez. Wild cards they, their Will Parker and Ado Annie are a hoot. Sure, their characters’ romantic entanglement are intended to braise the musical’s belly with comedy, but you’d be hard-pressed to find two other actors whose comedic timing, vocals, dancing and sheer stage presence manage to elevate an already memorable production to even greater heights. Sidfield is spirited—nice rope, boy!—and Vazquez is just born for this role. (And yes, to say she nails flirtatious Annie’s charmer “I Can’t Say No!” is an understatement.)
Scene stealer, in all the best ways, is Andrew Ceglio as peddler Ali Hakim, although this should not surprise local audiences. Anybody who has witnessed Ceglio in previous Cabrillo Stage productions—“Anything Goes,” “Cabaret,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Jesus Christ Superstar”—already knows what this creative beast is capable of. As Hakim, he’s a breath of fresh air.
And so, too, is the entire production.
Very few flaws plagued the opening night performance. Some minor technical matters concerning microphones, something that weighed down the earlier performances of Cabrillo’s “La Cage Aux Folles,” did little to mar the overall effect here. And while, at times, a few scene transitions—and a few scenes for that matter—could have benefited from having more briskness, no doubt these few quirks have already been refined.
Not many people may actually know that “Oklahoma!” is based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs. The author, playright and poet hailed from Oklahoma and is said to have written the original play in a café in Paris, finishing it up in the south of France some months afterward. Once the play was adapted into a musical and won hearts in 1943, Riggs was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.
The production has traveled many a creative prairie since that time. In 1944, Rodgers and Hammerstein won a Pulitzer Prize for their artfully crafted imaginative musical. In 1956, the film version nabbed several Oscars, including Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture (in 1955). It’s been revived on Broadway four times and, to this day, remains a classic.
This is what makes Cabrillo Stage’s version all the more impressive. From its staging to its production value, it appears that the creative team investigated and gave real thought to how to bring a robust, choreographically intense and musically mesmerizing show to life—and also do it justice. (And what a showstopper they make out of the “Oklahoma!” number.) In the fine hands of director Alvaro and the artistic wand of producing artistic director Jon Nordgren—his musical team transcends—“Oklahoma!” is one of the best shows to emerge out of the creative portals of Cabrillo Stage in some time.
“Oklahoma” plays through Aug. 18 at Cabrillo Stage. For tickets, or to learn more about all the shows running this summer at Cabrillo Stage, visit cabrillostage.com. Photos: Jana Marcus