Theater Review: OKLAHOMA! (Musical Theatre of Los Angeles at the Met Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on June 23, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles

DARK? NOT SO MUCH.
WORTHWHILE? OH, YEAH.

The real stars of Oklahoma!, presented by the Musical Theatre of Los Angeles, are Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein’s 1943 book is solidly funny and sweet – it avoids creaking with age because it shuns overt sentimentality, and the lyrics are chock-full of poetic imagery and clever internal rhymes. There is nothing like a Rodgers waltz, and rare is the Broadway composer who comes close to creating ballads as lush as Out of My Dreams and Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’. In fact, every melody in the ground-breaking show is memorable. It remains one of the most-produced musicals for a reason: it’s darn near foolproof.

Travis Dixon as Curly and Jean Altadel as Laurey in MTLA's production of OKLAHOMA! at the Met Theatre. Photo Copyright © Tina Babajanians.

When the press kit for the current production at the Met Theatre promised that this won’t be your mother’s ribbons-and-lace version, focusing instead on the darker side of life on the Plains, this reviewer was intrigued. But once “the boys” and “the girls” of the chorus appeared during Kansas City, it was clear that we would be offered no new insights into the dark, gritty, hardscrabble territory. Instead, we have a heavy-sighin’, fly swattin’ ensemble with men’s thumbs tucked in the belt loops of their pants, and gals with arms akimbo. Pretty standard community theatre fare, one would think.

But here’s the mule kicker: director Robert Marra has, for the most part, assembled an earnest cast that offers some strikingly poignant moments. Add to this Tanya Possick’s rowdy and comical choreography, and you are guaranteed to leave the theatre a-hootin’ and a-hollerin’.

Travis Dixon as Curly and Jean Altadel as Laurey in MTLA's production of OKLAHOMA! at the Met Theatre. Photo Copyright © Tina Babajanians.The famous opening has the singing cowboy, Curly paying a call to the farm of butter-churning Aunt Eller. His ulterior motive is the design to ask Eller’s niece, Laurey to the box social in a surrey that he rented for the night. But the two lovebirds have been squabbling for quite some time because they just can’t admit that they love each other. Instead, Laurey accepts the box social invitation from her ominous hired hand Jud Fry to spite Curly; Curly invites Aunt Eller, and the Dust Bowl drama ensues.

A beguiling Travis Dixon and comely Jean Altadel are not just suitably matched as Curly and Laurey, but the Surrey number was sweet, unpretentious and downright charming. Not in the many times this reviewer has witnessed Curly’s clip-clop cooing has it been more entrancing. They hit the right notes time and again throughout the evening. “Dream Curly” and “Dream Laurey” were cleverly replaced in the Act I Ballet by Mr. Dixon and Miss Altadel, who more than held their own, dancing up a dust storm.

Maura Smith’s Aunt Eller is a mixed oat bag: she is delightfully sweet and genuine but her cutesy approach obscures the “you-got-to-be-hearty” grittiness. It is a fine presentational performance that suffers from a lack of timing.

Jillian Gomez as Ado Annie and and Ryan Oboza as Will Parker in MTLA's production of OKLAHOMA! at the Met Theatre. Photo Copyright © Tina Babajanians.Once Ryan Oboza’s Will Parker hits the scene, it’s time to defy criticism and jump on the buckboard of fun. You’ll be glad you saw these kids dance their chaps and garters off in The Farmer and the Cowman. Mr. Oboza is goofy, boisterous, and adorable — well-matched to Jillian Gomez’s Ado Annie. Gomez’s kewpie doll pout keeps her bordering on Vaudevillian eye-googling, but she manages to rein it in at just the right moments. You just might say, “She’s sweeter ‘en cream.”

Jay Rincon’s Jud is boy-band gorgeous, which gives credence to Laurie’s two-year-long inability to fire the threatening farmhand. Unfortunately, Mr. Rincon is as menacing as Justin Timberlake, and could not capture Jud’s desperation and vulnerability in his solo, Lonely Room — although Mr. Rincon shows promise. It’s a shame this “darkened” version of Oklahoma! didn’t dare to have Laurey actually display some underpinnings of lust for the swarthy swine.

As Ado Annie’s father, Andrew Carnes, James Patrillo doesn’t come off grizzled and weatherworn; he’s very silly and clearly studies at the Aunt Eller School of Timing. He’s likable enough, but I’m surprised each line of his dialogue doesn’t end with, “Yer darn tootin!’ ”

His silliness is exacerbated by that flapping, toasted marshmallow-colored sun bonnet he’s a-wearin’, and the outfits on the chorus makes one wonder if Anna’s Linens hadn’t somehow regurgitated all over them. These are the real Americans who tamed this land? The mismatched gingham and plaid costumes by Ann McMahan either just got back from the Chinese laundry, or dust hadn’t arrived on the Plains yet.

Scenic designer Craig Pavilion succeeds with the realism of Laurie’s front porch, but he mystifies with a large staircase/rock/hill/thing on stage right that looks like an unfinished ride at Knott’s Barry Farm.

Jay Rincon as Jud in MTLA's production of OKLAHOMA! at the Met Theatre. Photo Copyright © Tina Babajanians.Didn’t anyone get the memo about a darker side?

Speaking of memos, there should be one about the crinkling, cellophane potato chip bags that the theater sells and allows patrons to eat during the show — on round picnic tables that ring the apron of the stage, no less. It is difficult to achieve suspension of disbelief while theatergoers munch in Laurey’s front yard.

None of these misfires will stop you from getting your money’s worth, so go for a visit to the Oklahoma prairie. Just don’t mind the occasional cow patty.

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photos by Tina Babajanians

Oklahoma!
Musical Theatre of Los Angeles
Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave.
Thurs – Sat at 8; Sun at 3
ends on July 18, 2010
for tickets, call (323) 960-7735 or visit Plays411

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