Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Packed with numbers now encased in the Great American Songbook, Oklahoma! is a rousing, foot-stomping, heartwarming adventure set in 1906 as one of the last of the original forty eight states is about to join the union. In their wartime, 1943 musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein solidified notions introduced in the 1927 Show Boat (Kerns and Hammerstein) that a musical's songs should advance the story (and not just be there for entertainment) and that musicals could be much more than just fluff and fun by introducing serious, even controversial themes.
While there is much silliness, sparking and spunk in Oklahoma, there are also threatening clouds that keep cropping up on the horizon. Two love triangles raise issues of class divides and prejudice against foreigners. Neighbors are pitted against each other over land rights, and heroes and heroines turn out to as human as most of us are, with traits that are not totally admirable. But the dream of a tomorrow where unification can add up to something bigger and better than remaining divided and apartbe it the joining of two people into a couple or of a whole territory into a stateallows Oklahoma! to rise to epical levels and to thrill and inspire almost seventy-five years of packed audiences around the world.
With a voice solid and sharp in clarity, Sam Faustine is the almost too handsome, cattle-herding Curly who is so bowlegged he "couldn't stop a pig in the road," according to Aunt Eller. Notes lift easy and precisely and often with just a hint of playful devilishness as he describes "The Surry with the Fringe on the Top." He dutifully woos his one-and-only Laurey, and in doing so, he is sometimes awkward with an aw-shucks look and sometimes stubborn with a feigned hurt face. He is also often a bit sneaky with twinkling eyes betraying his otherwise smug grin, like when he pretends to court the silly, cackling Gertie Cummingsso humorously played by Samantha Pistoresijust to make Laurey jealous.
But his squeaky clean Curly also has a dark side. In "Pore Jud," he hints in fairly graphic terms to his rival, farmhand Jud Fry, who also has a strong hankering for Laurey, that committing suicide by hanging might be a way to get people to finally like the sullen recluse everyone avoids. However, as the competition builds between the two to an ultimate showdown, this Curly erases any doubts of his true good nature, bringing a sense of nobility, sacrifice and bravery that is just the kind needed to conquer evil, win a girl's love, and declare a new state in a voice that soars in the climatic "Oklahoma."
Equally powerful in his performance is John Melis as the dark-in-spirit Jud Fry. Jud is often cowering off to the side, with head slightly down but eyes always on alert and with a hint of perpetual threat to some undetermined enemy. His magnetic, animalistic attraction draws a visible, approach/avoidance response from Laurey (his boss on the ranch). When he finally speaks (in perhaps too harsh but still heart-filled words) of his love for her, he comes under her vicious, verbal attack as someone below her social status. As she shows her darker side, the deep hurt in those round eyes of black lead to a few moments of our true pity for Jud as someone perhaps too misunderstood by those around him. When Mr. Melis' Jud expresses himself in song with his muscles drawn so tight as if about to snap, as in "Lonely Room," his rich, deep voice with operatic overtones sings first in half cry/half plead, "The floor creaks, the door squeaks", then rises to a full blast of astounding determination, "I ain't gonna dream 'bout her no more!/ I ain't gonna leave her alone!." Overall, John Melis has captured a Jud Fry that draws both our sympathy and our repulsion.
As the third leg of this triangle, Jennifer Mitchell more than holds her own. She sparkles in spirit and song in "Many a New Day," as she lightly skips over notes as if stones in a forest stream, pausing to trill with beautiful precision and clarity words here and there for added emphasis. Her voice easily matches Curly's in humorous play and sincere expression in their combined "People Will Say We're in Love." When the two reprise the song as their love is finally solidified, the radiance of her shining face is only trumped by that of her radiating voice. There are times when in song she is like a plains meadowlark, so easy does she glide and project her song as in "Out of My Dreams." Likewise, Ms. Mitchell is stellar in dance, joining full stage numbers with full exuberance or floating in the style of a ballerina, as in the moving close to act one when she and the company portray, in a stunning, superbly performed ballet, her dream of the rivalry between Jud and Curly.
But the riches of this Broadway by the Bay cast spread well beyond the three lead roles. As Will Parker, Danila Burshteyn brings a face full of wonder and whimsy, a singing and speaking voice that explodes with heart and humor, and an ability to dance that is jaw dropping. His high-air leg splits and fast two-stepping are particularly noteworthy in the crowd-pleasing "Kansas City." Just as attention worthy is his sought-after love, the high-spirited Ado Annie Carnes (Erin Yvette) who bursts into "I Can't Say No" full of mischief, wandering eyes for other men, and a voice so infectious with fun to ensure liking by all. Together, they perform a near showstopper in "All 'Er Nothin'" as they test just how faithful each might actually be, once a marital knot is tied.
But to get to the altar, Ado's burly, shotgun-toting father Andrew Carnes (Rich Matli) has to be convinced Will has the required fifty bucks "to buy" Ado. Further, a traveling peddler from Persia, Ali Hakim (Mohammed Ismail) has to work his way out of being the reluctant third leg of the musical's second love trianglea situation the mustached, wheeler-dealer gets himself into by promising Ado to take her "to the end of the world" and by her father understanding that those promises happened in the backseat of Ali's buggy. All of the aforementioned are delightful in their comic character portrayals and talented in their musical and dancing prowess.
As wonderful as all the core cast members are individually (including Ali Lane as the elderly, friend-to-all Aunt Eller so full of spry energy), this production really shines when the full cast is on stage in song and danceeither as all women in "Many a Day," all men in "Kansas City," or full cast of twenty-plus in the square dance, barnyard extravaganza, "The Farmer and the Cowman." In all the numbers, gingham skirts unfurl and twirl madly, boots hammer with gusto their rapid dance rhythms, and bodies fly through air with group precision, while voices sing in magnificent harmony and smiles beam on all. Choreographer Camille Edralin and dance captain Samantha Pistoresi have combined to stage a series of numbers, big and small, that are fabulously rendered in hoedown, folk, and ballet styles.
Sean Kana leads the orchestra of thirteen to ensure all of Richard Rodgers' music is given its full due via delicate-sounding reeds, flowing strings, and full blasting brass with diamond-edge clarity. Kelly James Tighe has brought a piece of authentic, early Oklahoma to the stage setting, with Valerie Emmi's colorful, cotton, and leather costumes bringing the frontier to full life. Joshua Marx establishes early on the sense of friends and community by the way he directs the actors even before the play begins, and he makes use of the entire auditorium by fully using the aisles to give the sense of the expansiveness of the plains.
Oklahoma! is much more than just a treasured heirloom of the American musical library to be pulled off the shelf from time to time, especially in our current, political state of affairs. The teetering balance between divisive breakdown and total unity within a local community, the unquestioned rush to acquit by a local judge the well-liked white boy, or the treatment of someone seen as "the other" by those who otherwise all look and act alikethese are the themes of this 1943 musical that resonate louder than ever in 2016 America.
Congratulations to Broadway by the Bay for bringing back to our local stage in such flawless, uplifting, thought-provoking (and yes, totally fun) fashion, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!.
Oklahoma! continues through June 19, 2016, in the Broadway by the Bay's production at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway, Redwood City. Tickets are available at broadwaybythebay.org.