It’s been 75 years since “Oklahoma!” exploded onto Broadway and changed musical theater forever. In addition to being the first Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “Oklahoma!” changed the genre’s very nature and structure by integrating song and dance into the storyline.
The singular importance of this classic calls for candid examination each time it is staged, because there are carefully reasoned traditions that were established by Rodgers and Hammerstein that need to be adhered to, which is why it is the oldest musical still being performed regularly around the world.
Actors’ Repertory Theatre of Simi’s current production, which opened July 28 at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, has most of the hallmarks that cemented the legacy of “Oklahoma!”: charismatic romantic leads for plainspoken cowpoke Curly and farm girl Laurey, a sumptuous orchestra and rousing dance numbers.
Director Will Shupe and choreographer Becky Castells are both familiar with the arts center’s cramped stage and populate it well, if not thickly, with a large and skilled ensemble cast. No one does a better job than Castells in choreographing large shows in a small space, designing dances with a small radius while getting as many performers on stage as possible. (“The Farmer and the Cowman” is especially crowded.)
Joe Hebel is just right as Curly, with a robust singing voice and carefree demeanor, although he delivered his lines a little too fast. Hebel is a marvelous actor, having played Jean Valjean and the Phantom as a student at Moorpark High School. His ravishing vocal on “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” is as good as it gets.
Sara Owinyo is more demure than headstrong as Laurey, with a beauteous, rich voice. Her “Many a New Day” is especially good and she carries off her part with ease.
We are all for multicultural casting in cases where race doesn’t matter, but ARTS’ production puts audiences in a “turrible fix” by having Ceron Jones, an African-American, play Persian peddler Ali Hakim. Jones is an accomplished actor and a fine comedian who has played a variety of roles such as Coalhouse Walker Jr. in “Ragtime” and the title character in “Shrek,” but here he is miscast.
Hakim is specifically defined as being Persian and short in stature (“You’re too little to be a man and too big to be a mouse!” Will Parker tells him), which makes Jones’ physical appearance (he’s over 6 feet tall) problematic on two levels. The situation begs the question: What would have happened in 1906 Oklahoma if an African-American man got caught courting a young, naive white girl? (When Andrew Carnes, Ado Annie’s father, pulls a shotgun on Hakim, there is actually doubt about what he intends to do with it and why.)
One is reminded that Audra McDonald won a Tony for playing Carrie Pipperidge in “Carousel,” but there is a limit to when multicultural casting works and when it doesn’t. The latter is clearly the case here. Although Owinyo is also African-American, her portrayal of Laurey does not raise the same questions since her character is not racially defined. Jones does his best, however, and is very funny as he tries to wriggle out of his betrothal to Ado Annie, played to giggly perfection by Alissa Horner.
Aside from this, ARTS’ “Oklahoma!” succeeds on most levels. Kathleen Silverman has played Aunt Eller before and her no-nonsense good humor is perfect here. Conner Stevens is wonderful as the dumber-than-nails Will Parker and David White is properly menacing as Jud Fry, although he could glower a little more rather than smile.
Matt Park leads the larger-than-usual orchestra, whose size is worthy of “Oklahoma!’s” luxuriant score, which includes two songs (Jud’s “Lonely Room” and Hakim’s “It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage!”) cut from the original production.
“Oklahoma!” runs through Sept. 2 at Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Ave. For tickets, call (805) 583- 7900 or visit simi-arts.org.