Arts & Leisure

A timeless, classic “Oklahoma!”

WILL PARKER (Matthew Rangel) and Ado Annie (Gio Martinez) in “Oklahoma!” at the Gem Theater in Garden Grove (Photos by Ron Lyons).

By Thom deMartino/Orange County Tribune

Just because you can change something, doesn’t mean you should: sometimes, you just don’t tinker with the classics.

Such is the case with “Oklahoma!”, newly opened at Garden Grove’s own Gem Theater, as the Rogers & Hammerstein musical is staged by the award-winning One More Productions troupe.

“Oklahoma” tells the turn-of-the-20th century tale of the budding relationship between the young cowman Curly (Bryan Fraser) and local farm girl Laurey (Erika Baldwin) set against the backdrop of the Oklahoma territory’s coming of age, as it’s brought into the Union. Though he’s tried to woo her for some time, the young lady teasingly refuses Curly’s bold overtures, including his invitation to accompany him to the box social dance later that evening.

The lovestruck cowboy isn’t the only one having troubles in matters of the heart: fellow cowpoke and friend Will Parker (Matthew Rangel) has returned from his sojourn to Kansas City, along with the $50 he needs to convince his own sweetheart’s father, Andrew Carnes (Tim Klega) to give him her hand in marriage – only, the blossoming beauty Ado Annie (Gio Martinez) is finding she’s enjoying the attention the menfolk are suddenly giving her, especially the silver-tongued peddler Ali Hakim (Peter Crisafulli).

When Laurey tells him she plans to attend the dance with hired hand Jud Fry (James Scognamillo), Curly playfully invites her Aunt Eller (Beth Hanson) to the dance; not realizing that Laurey’s acceptance of Jud’s invite was not simply to stir the cowboy’s passions… but out of unease at the thought of what the brooding, sullen man may be capable of, if refused.

As the dance draws near, the tension between the romantic rivals is ratcheting up — and it’s beginning to look like it may be more than just hearts that get broken, by night’s end…

If there is any drawback to being a regular patron of the Gem Theater – and that is a very big “if,” by the way – it’s that just when you think you’ve seen the pinnacle of their performances, and have set for certain this time which one is your absolute, positive favorite… they bowl you over with a new show, surpassing the already high expectations of an audience accustomed to their remarkable staging.

Though the now century-old theater may be modest in terms of capacity, it only makes getting a ticket that much more covetable: and while some might wonder if a spectacle such as “Oklahoma!” can be done justice in such a reasonably-sized venue, this production will put any doubts to sound rest.

The choreography of Gem veterans Katy Lawson and Brittney Rose Dawson springs to vibrant life through the deft footwork of the ensemble, in beautiful, haunting pieces like the “Dream Ballet,” and particularly in numbers like “Kansas City” (also showcasing the increasing refinement of the ample skills of one talented Mr. Rangel).

The 13-piece orchestra, sitting within the eyeline of the audience and skillfully conducted by Nick Bravo, acts as backdrop, adding to the atmosphere with stirring accompaniment to songs like the moving “People Will Say We’re In Love” and the extremely memorable “I Cain’t Say No.”

Speaking of which…the Gem’s best-kept secret appears to be one Ms. Martinez.

THE DANCING is superb in the Gem’s “Oklahoma.”

While having appeared in supporting roles in previous Gem productions, the Ado Annie actress comes into her own with this show, clearly relishing the role of the plucky adolescent, sometimes brash, sometimes bashful: and every raised eyebrow, every sweep of the hair, every mischievous grin is a measured, calculated choice by the actress; curating a singularly playful, strikingly memorable performance.

There are welcome returns to the Gem stage, in the forms of Ms. Hanson and Ms. Baldwin; and the latter’s chemistry with Fraser’s Curly is in a word, magical. The vocal talents of both actors are astonishing in their own right, and the pair are mesmerizing as they harmonize in both song and motion.

Another stand-out performance is that of the menacing heavy of the tale, Jud; in Scognamillo’s hands, what could be dismissed as some kind of early “incel” – flaunting dirty pictures, with no manners or social niceties, with no ties (easily classified into the “lone wolf” camp), he becomes a man in want of respect, acceptance, love… even if he doesn’t have the faintest idea how to communicate that, or even self-reflect. The outcome is a character who is not merely a “big bad,” as much as a tragedy waiting to happen.

Another entry for “favorite show, EVER” for Gem fans to consider and debate, “Oklahoma!” is a remarkable piece, that checks all the boxes: beautifully choreographed, expertly conducted, and guaranteed to overturn all expectations – as undoubtedly high as they may be.

“Oklahoma!” Erika Baldwin, Bryan Fraser and James Scognamillo star in this masterful One More Productions staging of the beloved classic musical. Playing through March 26 at The Gem Theater, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove, CA, 92840. Call 714-741-9550 x221 or email for ticketing information. Appropriate for all ages.



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