Corn, elephants, surreys – an Americana potpourri

‘Oklahoma’ opens at Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center
by Tom Fitt
Published September 17, 2009

When Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities (CLOSBC) officially opens their new show on Saturday (previews tonight and tomorrow), it will be oh such a beautiful morning with chicks and ducks and geese scurrying all through Redondo Beach because some girl can’t say “no” (my ex-wife?) while trying to maneuver about the Beach Cities in some strangely fringed thing called a surrey. I think it’s a Buick. But, rest assured, the corn will be as high as some elephant’s body part, which is good for ethanol users and Kellogg’s stockholders. Funny, I’ve lived most of my life in the Midwest and never espied an elephant in a cornfield, thus I know not where this comparison originated. I did once own an old mule. Are there any young mules?

Speaking of old mules… er… warhorses, the show is “Oklahoma,” a Rodgers and Hammerstein gem first staged in 1943 at the St. James Theatre on Broadway. There ain’t too many elephants circling Times Square either, last time I visited, unless the GOP is conventioning. But this show – which was rejected by numerable producers before finally enjoying the opening curtain – tallied 2,212 performances until the initial production closed in 1948. That was a record which was finally surpassed by – you guessed it – another R&H musical titled “The Sound of Music.” Some feline thing came later to post bigger numbers. If you see James Blackman, founder and executive producer of CLOSBC, in the lobby of the theater, ask his opinion of that furry masterpiece. His response will make it worth missing the second act. Do you think Blackman will wear a cowboy hat for his pre-show introduction? There will have to be rhinestones.

The show is based on a 1931 play titled “Green Grow the Lilacs,” by Lynn Riggs, that visited the Great White Way for a cup of coffee. I always thought lilacs were, well, lilac. The time frame of “Oklahoma” is 1907. So, we’ve got this pretty little love story set in a state that isn’t even yet a state where there are green lilacs, elephants, corn, fringed surreys, and a title song (oft repeated in the score) which insists that audience members memorize the spelling of a territory that gave us the Dust Bowl (destroying 100 million acres of farmland in the 1930s), gubernatorial candidate Senator Randy Brogdon, and a now-wounded quarterback named Sam Bradford. Lotsa luck against Texas.

But, the show is as innocent as Kansas in August (oops, wrong R&H show). The CLOSBC’s production team is the same that gave us the Ovation Award-winning “Miss Saigon” in 2008. Stephanie Coltrin directs, Karen Nowicki choreographs, and musical direction is handled by the experienced and talented Alby Potts. There will assuredly be good music.

Coltrin said CLOBC did “Oklahoma” once before, “many years ago.” So, why the resurrection? “The subscribers asked for it. They really love the show and it’s probably the right show at the right time. It’s really Americana. The hero of this piece is the community as it talks about working together, overcoming circumstances. It reminds us of where we came from, even with the lyrics, ‘The land we belong to is grand.’ It reminds us how we can overcome some things, and I think it’s the perfect time for it… You can’t walk out of this without a big smile on your face.

“It’s classic Rodgers and Hammerstein, and it was the first (Broadway) show that ever did a cast album. The songs were on the Hit Parade. We’ve all grown up with these songs, so I think it’s great,” she said.

“’Oklahoma’ was the first R&H collaboration. Originally, all thought it would be Rodgers and Hart, but Hart didn’t want to do it. I think Jerome Kern also turned it down, so it eventually got to Hammerstein.

“There have been many revivals, which makes it both a challenge and a great amount of fun… I mean, everybody’s seen the movie, so the performances become iconic as well… They weren’t a state yet; they were afraid of all kinds of challenges from rain to fire. It’s about a tight-knit community in a really dangerous place, and keeping your spirits up and loving each other and all that.”

The CLOSBC cast numbers 31, a bit fewer than the normal 40. “We really had to cast people who could do all three things because we often have a chorus of dancers and a chorus of singers, but we had to find people who can do it all,” said Coltrin. “We also had a short rehearsal time – two weeks – but we’re still able to do a lot of detail work.”

Among the cast is Diane Vincent as Aunt Eller, a prime musical theater role. She’s never done the show before, but worked at CLOSBC “in ‘Oliver’ about four or five years ago. I’m very happy to be back here,” said Vincent. She said that the short rehearsal time is a challenge, but “Because it’s so organized, all’s been going well. Stephanie (Coltrin) runs a tight ship and nobody’s time is being wasted.”

Of the show, Vincent said, “It’s the perfectly constructed musical. All the songs are born out of the dialogue, which is the first time that ever happened.”

Vincent was born in Indianapolis to an actor father (now deceased) who moved the family to Southern California when she was young. She now lives in Sun Valley. Her mother is a professional pianist and singer. Vincent said, “It’s in my genes. I’ve been performing since 1988.”

She also works at Universal Studios as a “family-lincensed” Lucille Ball impersonator. Lucy’s offspring and CBS keep tight reins on the star’s personification, said Vincent.

Sarah Bermudez plays Laurey and is what director Coltrin calls “the epitome of the ingénue you want her to be. She’s intelligent and her voice is glorious.”

It’s her first time at CLOSBC, “But I’m no stranger to ‘Oklahoma.’ This is my fifth production. Lately, I’ve mostly been working the San Diego area.”

Regarding her significant history with the show, the Riverside resident said, “In my first production of ‘Oklahoma,’ when I was 17, the man who played Curly and I got together and I ended up marrying him.”

Ahhhh, corn fed love. In California, no less, the home of hydroponics.

She’s always played Laurey, but said, “I wouldn’t mind playing Ado Annie sometime, though I love Laurey. She’s a fun character.”

Damon Kirsche is among the cast who is debuting at CLOSBC. It’s also his first encounter with the character of Curly. “I’ve made a career of doing Golden Age, Broadway, American Songbook material, but I’ve never done ‘Oklahoma,’” said the North Dakota native. “I’m very pleased to now be able to add this to my resume.”

Why did Kirsche move to L.A.? “It’s warm,” he said simply. “Theater is what I’ve been doing most of my life. I sing with a swing orchestra (Dean Mora Band), done some film and TV, but mostly it’s stage work.”

After this run at CLOSBC, Kirsche plans to return as the boy singer with the band. “But, it’s fun approaching this piece, which is from 1943, because there are some important musical elements from the period.”

The public will have many opportunities to experience the Oklahoma lifestyle of 1907. Take the kids. The closest thing to a curse word is “shucks.” It’s “The Andy Griffith Show” with music. I forgot to ask Coltrin if there will be live animals on stage. Probably not an elephant, though. No, I’ll not make a James Blackman joke – he’s slimmed down a lot in past months.

“Oklahoma.” CLOSBC, Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, corner Aviation and Manhattan Beach Boulevard, Redondo. Now through Oct. 4. Tuesday to Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday 2 p.m., Sept. 26 and Oct. 3; Sunday 2 p.m. Sept. 20, 27 and Oct. 4; Sunday 7 p.m., Sept. 27 and Oct. 4. Tickets $40-$60. Call 310-372-4477. ER