Across the boards
Two classic musicals belt out the standards on local stages
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! begins with one of the great songs of modern musical theater, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” It has to be done just right. If the singer lacks a voice that’s rich and confident, the whole production will suffer from that point on.
Fortunately, a young man named Tyler Campbell is playing the lead role of Curly in the California Regional Theatre production that opened last weekend at the Center for the Arts. He’s terrific. Making a grand entrance from the back of the theater, he approached the stage with the easygoing swagger of a handsome cowpoke come to court the woman he fancies, his big and beautiful voice testifying to his passion.
We are instantly reminded that this musical is chock-full of classic tunes, songs like “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” “I Cain’t Say No!” “Kansas City,” “People Will Say We’re in Love” and, of course, the great closing song that gives the play its title.
Oklahoma! is the first musical from composer Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, its librettist. It premiered on Broadway in 1943, was a box-office smash, and ushered in what is now considered the “golden age” of American musical theater. Rodgers and Hammerstein would go on to have several more big hits, including South Pacific, Carousel, The King and I and The Sound of Music.
Campbell’s performance is one of several standouts in this excellent production. All of the other lead actors—Erin DeSeure as Laurey, Curly’s paramour; Bethany Gonzales as Ado Annie, who “cain’t say no”; Adam Maness as Will, her befuddled wannabe lover; Brandon Kingsley as the dangerously jealous Jud Fry; Christopher Sullivan as the Persian peddler, Ali Hakim; and Sonya Huss as Aunt Eller, the gravel-voiced matriarch of this pioneer clan—not only can sing well, but also bring great creativity to their roles.
The production benefits from the large CFA stage, which gives choreographer Sara Shoemaker plenty of room for her big production numbers. Sets (designed by Christopher Burkhardt), lights (Kevin White) and costumes (Alter Ego) all are very good, and the background scrim showing rolling fields of flowering crops looks like something out of a Thomas Hart Benton painting.
Bob Maness is the director, and it’s no exaggeration to say that he’s pulled together a production that proves it’s possible to give a professional sheen to community theater.
Across town last weekend, Chico Theater Company also was staging a popular musical, Mary Poppins. During his introduction of the show, co-founder and managing director Marc Edsom announced that the company was in the market to purchase a facility after 12 years of renting. One possibility, he said, was to buy the current site.
Obviously, the place has served them well. Twelve years is a lifetime in community theater. However, it’s got a small stage, and shows that feature big production numbers—as Mary Poppins does—would benefit from more space.
Mary Poppins requires eight distinct sets, ranging from a parlor to the rooftop to a bank, with 22 scenes shifting among these eight sets. And, since it’s a story about a magical nanny, it calls for a number of complex special effects, such as the demolition and magical restoration of the kitchen in the “Spoonful of Sugar” sequence—stagecraft challenging even for a professional company.
J.D. Amaral’s economical but effective sets kept us oriented despite the rapid scene changes, but the special effects work only sometimes, and the magic doesn’t always come through.
The plot of Mary Poppins is familiar: A nanny with magical powers comes to the Banks family’s London household circa 1910, helps to resolve the conflict between the children and their father, George, and restores harmony. The six leads—Jenise Coon as Mary Poppins; Jeff Dickinson as Bert, the chimney sweep; John Flesch as George Banks; Ashiah Scharaga as his wife, Winifred; and A.J. Sanseverino and Natalie Bridgnell as Michael and Jane, their children—are all quite good. The kids’ parts are complex, so A.J. and Natalie deserve special praise. Credit director Joey Mahoney with giving them the support they need to handle such big roles.
Audiences will enjoy hearing such memorable songs as “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “A Spoonful of Sugar” and, of course, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”