The play Oklahoma! and I go back a ways. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's famed play was, at the age of 8, the very first live theater I ever saw. My family was on a summer camping trip near Santa Cruz, and my parents took my sisters and I into town one night to see a local production of Oklahoma! (Not every young set of parents would interrupt a night in the woods under the stars for a trip to the theater with their kids but hey, that's my folks and that's why I love 'em.)
Live theater was a revelation to me at that age, and rightly so. Rodgers and Hammerstein were, along with Adam Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, probably the most famed composer-librettist team of the mid-20th century and Oklahoma!, now playing at North Coast Repertory Theatre, was their first collaboration. A Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway smash in 1943, it's had revivals ever since and is known far and wide, right down to people taking a shot at singing its opening number while in the shower or cleaning out the bird feeder.
Set in the Oklahoma Territory in 1906, the play begins with Curly (Jordan Dobbins) singing that very song — "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" — and dropping by the home of Laurey (Jo Kuzelka) and her Aunt Eller (Laura Rose). Curly and Laurey's a-courting is at the heart of the story, as the sincere young cowboy does his best to win over the farm girl. This runs parallel to the story of Curly's fellow cowboy Will (Wesley Fuller), fresh back from Kansas City flush with money and tales of the big, big city, and with the yen to parlay this into landing the hand of his sweetheart Ado Annie (Jessi Shieman). Finally, there is lonely, not-really-OK farmhand Jud (Jonathon Moreno), currently dwelling out in the smokehouse of Laurey and Eller's farm. Laurey has agreed to accompany Jud to a box social to raise money for a schoolhouse. It's a move to make Curly jealous but, as usual in theater, such tactics come with repercussions.
In Oklahoma! one memorable number after another comes rolling along: "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top," "Kansas City," "People Will Say We're in Love." And NCRT's production is blessed with a pair of very good leads to live up to those songs: Dobbins (from NCRT's Les Miserables) has a remarkable voice and does well with the physicality required for the role of Curly. Kuzelka, recently seen as a very good Jo in Ferndale Rep's Little Women, gives some depth to Laurey — not a role written with a whole lot to it in the first place — and has a great set of pipes herself. The numbers in which she and Robbins are featured prominently are where Oklahoma! truly shines.
Staging any production of Oklahoma! is a bit of gamble. It's paradigm-shifting-Broadway-history-big enough to be iconic — "People Will Say We're in Love" is inarguably one of the greatest romantic show tunes of the golden era of the Great White Way. It sets the bar for any production of it pretty (as Curly would say) durn high. The play requires solid timing in direction and execution to handle all that goes on. There's also the choreography, beyond throwing punches at the box social or elsewhere in the second act, that the cast needs to land. Like the vast wind-swept plains themselves, these require more than a small theater company can necessarily provide. The ensemble choruses numbers, along with Laury's famously daring 10-minute laudanum-enhanced "dream ballet" sequence, are daunting. Director Molly Severdia does her best with these pieces, managing a huge cast, but doesn't always hit all the marks.
That large cast also presents the challenge of rounding up enough strong voices and actors, although some standouts include Shieman as Ado Annie, who, along with her fine voice, is a perfect fit for the famously flirty role and its shows-topping number "I Cain't Say No," which she handles magnificently. And newcomer Ruben Botello sinks his teeth in to the classic comic-relief role of Persian peddler Ali Hakim — Will's rival suitor for Annie's hand.
Oklahoma! in any manifestation cannot be beat as a piece of Americana and, despite its flaws, NCRT's staging brings many good things to something that looms large in the collective memory of theater fans. To borrow from one of its songs about the farmer and the cowman being friends, I'm not sure how well that's working out for the big divide in the nation just now. But Oklahoma! might still give you some hope for all that.
Oklahoma! plays at the North Coast Repertory Theatre on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Feb. 18, with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. through Feb. 18 and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. through Feb. 12. For more information, call 442-NCRT or visit www.ncrt.net.
Multi-generational drama comes to Gist Hall Theatre on Jan. 26 with Humboldt State University's Eleemosyary. The play, in which three women, Dorathea, Artemis and Echo, navigate their complex bonds, runs through Feb. 4. Call 826-3928.
At Humboldt Light Opera Company's Shirley Valentine, a Liverpool housewife sees a chance to escape her domestic gloom for the sunny climes of Greece. This "mature audiences" play runs Jan. 27 through Feb. 12. Call 630-5013 or visit www.hloc.org.
All My Sons, Arthur Miller's tale of post-war trauma and family struggles, shows at Ferndale Repertory Theatre from Jan. 27 through Feb. 5. Recommended for ages 16 and up. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.
It's that time of year again. Zounds!, Redwood Curtain Theatre's 10th annual radio play/dinner theater fundraiser at Blue Lake Casino's Sapphire Palace on Jan. 28. Call 443-7688 or visit www.redwoodcurtain.com.
The 20th anniversary tour of the critically acclaimed musical Rent makes its way to the Van Duzer Theatre for two nights: Tuesday, Jan. 31 and Wednesday, Feb. 1. Call 826-3928 or visit www.centerarts.humboldt.edu.