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Oh, what a beautiful musical

I found the Spokane Civic Theatre’s version of “Oklahoma!” to be thoroughly enjoyable, which means one of two things:

Either this old chestnut of a musical has finally softened my resistance after many decades, or else the Civic’s version was particularly fun.

I’m leaning toward the latter. This production emphasized all of the show’s strengths (the comedy and the great Rodgers and Hammerstein songs) and neutralized most of its weaknesses (its thin plot and its old-fashioned corniness).

This particular “Oklahoma!” is clearly the handiwork of its director/choreographer, Kathie Doyle-Lipe. She happens to be one of Spokane’s most gifted actress-comediennes. She can get laughs just walking across a stage in high heels. Turns out, she has the ability to convey those same comic and physical gifts to her cast, all of whom demonstrate great comic savvy throughout this play.

Here are just a few of the comic high points:

•Ado Annie (Emily Cleveland) squeaking with excitement when singing about her favorite subject, men, in “I Cain’t Say No.”

•Ali Hakim (Thomas Heppler) demonstrating the “Persian Goodbye,” an enthusiastic and lecherous kiss.

•Will Parker (Cameron Lewis) demonstrating the “Oklahoma Hello,” an even more enthusiastic and lecherous kiss.

•Aunt Eller (Jean Hardie) ordering the assembled cowhands to “Shut up!” as if she were a drill sergeant in calico.

Doyle-Lipe also brings her particular talents to the dances. The “Kansas City” number is filled with humor and energy. The “Farmer and the Cowman” is often nothing more than a mildly amusing rivalry number with farmers and cowmen trying to insult each other. In Doyle-Lipe’s version, it unreels like a narrative, with the comic tension building, building and building until it erupts into a raucous and joyous all-out fight. Girls in bonnets are sitting on cowboys; little kids are clamped on farmers’ ankles and being dragged around the stage.

Especially impressive was the dream ballet sequence, danced with exceptional grace and attention to character by Ashley Cooper as Dream Laurey. Again, this sequence came across as a riveting, wordless narrative, beginning as a surreal romance and descending into a nightmare.

Above all, this version does justice to the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, which are among the most pleasurable in musical-comedy history. Musical director Carolyn Jess expertly leads a four-piece combo in the pit.

The cast is especially strong vocally, beginning right at the top with the excellent Adam Peterson as Curly. Before this show is even 15 minutes old, Peterson has hit two big numbers out of the park, with “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” and “The Surrey With a Fringe On Top.” His pitch control is excellent, his baritone smooth and his phrasing is respectful of Rodgers’ gorgeous melodies.

Alyssa Day is equally talented as Laurey, making a fine match for Peterson in “People Will Say We’re In Love.”

The character roles are especially strong, beginning with Jean Hardie, a force of nature as Aunt Eller. Hardie has been great in almost every role, but she is especially suited to be the loud and lovable Aunt Eller, who enjoys life and enjoys barking insults at defenseless peddlers.

Speaking of peddlers, Ali Hakim is played with exasperated panache by Heppler, who steals several of his scenes. Think Stan Laurel with a Persian accent. Shawn Hudson brings real menace, but also real humanity, to the role of the creepy Jud Fry. He, too, is vocally top-notch.

Still, my favorite supporting actor was Cameron Lewis, a rope-twirling, tap-dancing, two-stepping firecracker as Will Parker. Lewis can do it all — sing, dance and fill a stage with personality.

Add it all up, and the result is a production that does this classic right.

“Oklahoma” continues through Oct. 26. Call (509) 325-2507 for tickets.


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