KPBS AIRDATE: June 2, 1993
The year was 1942. A play was brought to composer Richard Rodgers, to be made into a musical. It was called “Green Grow the Lilacs,” and was set in the Southwest at the turn of the century. It was a lyrical piece, basically concerning the struggle between farmers and ranchers, with, of course, an appropriate love story. Rodgers began writing with a lyricist he’d never worked with before, Oscar Hammerstein II. The musical, titled “Away We Go!”, opened in New Haven in March 1943, to a rapturous reception. A week later, when it opened in Boston, the writers had added a song to the second act. The song was ‘Oklahoma.’ The rest is musical history.
The play ran on Broadway for five years and nine weeks. Fifty years later, it’s still one of the most frequently revived musicals of all time. So is it stale and musty? Not if it’s done right. And the San Diego Civic Light Opera, aka Starlight Musical Theatre, has done it right.
This production is spunky, high-spirited, excellently sung and marvelously danced. It makes you realize that they just don’t write ’em like they useta.
But “Oklahoma!” wasn’t written like they used to be, either. It was a groundbreaker in every way. It not only fused story, song and dance, which had not been done in the musical revues which preceded it. But it also introduced the notion of a dream ballet that revealed the hidden fears and desires of the principal characters.
Starlight makes it all come alive. As the affable Curly, Keith Rice has more charm than machismo, but it, like his voice, carries him far. Christine Phelps is a delectable Laurey, not too sugary, with the right amount of spirit and a lovely voice to match. Duane Daniels is a pretty menacing Jud Fry, wiry but scary. That deep, resonant voice of his is enough to give anyone the Willies. Andy Collins is an agile and likable Will, but as his girlfriend, Ado Annie, Stacy Scotte seems to be misguided, and mistakenly outfitted. She’s far too coy — and too coyly dressed — for the hot-blooded “girl who cain’t say no.” The rest of the cast is competent, the chorus is buoyant, and the ballet is wonderfully done. The ghost of Agnes de Mille is definitely alive in the choreography of Peggy Hickey.
Starlight is almost as old as its feature. This month starts its 48th season. And though Don and Bonnie Ward have done “Oklahoma!” at least four other times, in this golden anniversary year, they’ve really got it right.
And as testimony to the fact that this musical has got what it takes, I need only mention that both of the 24 year-old gentlemen who accompanied me to the show, neither of whom had seen it before or, amazingly, had heard the songs, walked out humming the tunes and recalling their words. Andrew Lloyd Webber, eat your heart out. As the golden lyric goes, “You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma!”
(Music from title song, “Oklahoma,” under….)
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.