By Charlene Baldridge
If the Aug. 13 opening night was any indication, New Village Arts has another musical hit on its hands, with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 Broadway musical, “Oklahoma!”
Not only that, there are new theater seats, still ample legroom, and a new soundboard (balance was still being worked out Saturday evening by sound designer Chad Goss). All other elements are there, the casting (director is debuting Teddy Eck), costumes (Mary Larson) and choreography (Julio Catano) are well nigh perfect, and any rough spots are likely to be smoothed during the run, which lasts until Sept. 25.
The action — based on the Lynn Riggs play, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” is set in Oklahoma territory in 1903, just prior to statehood — involves a cowboy named Curley (Jack French, who opens the show with “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’”) and his love (“People Will Say We’re in Love”) for a farm girl named Laurie (Charlene Koepf).
A parallel romance concerns (“I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say No”) Ado Annie (Alexandra Slade, who takes the role’s prize for subtlety and depth of understanding) and (“Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City”) Will Parker (Zackary Scot Wolfe) and his competition, a peddler named Ali Hakim (scene-stealing, wonderful Jonathan Sangster).
The pivotal role of Jud Fry — the reclusive farmhand who threatens Laurie and Curley — is played by the vocally splendid actor Christopher Lesson, one of the best we’ve ever seen. With customary warmth and reliability, Susan E.V. Boland (“The Farmer and the Cowman”) portrays Laurie’s Aunt Eller. The singing/dancing ensemble comprising Chris Bona, Devin Collins, Kelly Derouin, Anton Maroun, Jillian Porter and Jacob Reiss, create characterful, titled roles.
It would have shortened the length of the (nearly three-hour) evening to cut part of Agnes de Mille’s original Dream Sequence, which makes explicit Laurey’s dilemma, caught as she is between two types of fear.
A word about Jack French, who plays Curley: He is tall, handsome and very young, having just graduated with a B.A. from Point Loma Nazarene College and is aimed towards a master’s in opera performance. He has upcoming opera and operetta assignments with Point Loma Opera Theatre and San Diego Opera’s Opera on the Track program.
When he first enters as Curley, it’s a surprise to hear such a well-trained, operatic, and carefully produced sound emanating from such a regular looking guy. Further stage experience under a variety of directors will help integrate the multiple facets of his talent, both vocally and dramatically. Right now he’s a wow singer with an underdeveloped sense of Curley’s place in the musical theater pantheon. He needs to put on a bit of non-innate swagger and shed the idea of perfectly rounded tones in order to find easeful matinee idol employment. Meanwhile, enjoy what you hear.
Not much can be done about the meager orchestral forces — Music Director Tony Houck on piano, a particularly over-amped Nobuko Kemmatsu on percussion, and the wandering, onstage presence of singer/dancer/player Morgan Carberry, attractive as she is, on violin. One supposes that space and cost are factors, but two pianos sans percussion might have been better — it is impossible for one piano to play all the intended/expected notes.
For one with original orchestrations still lingering in her ears and memory, it was unsettling to say the least. And when is someone going to tell Charlene Koepf (Laurie) that she needn’t sing so loudly and with such “point” to be understood?
— Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. You can follow her blog at charlenebaldridge.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.