By Charlotte Alexander

Written and published in 2011

So . . . when Oklahoma cowpoke Will Parker (a debonair Devin Day) admonishes Ado Annie (Kerry DiMaggio at her hootin’ and hollerin’ best) that it’s “All Er Nuthin,’” he might as well be talking about the hard-working cast and crew of the crowd-pleasing production of “Oklahoma” now helping SLO Little Theatre celebrate its 65thyear in business.

The energy and enthusiasm on display in this show is what community theatre is all about. Director and choreographer Zach Johnson has taken this raw intensity and fashioned an entertaining evening with something for everyone, including romance, well-choreographed fistfights, hoedowns, ballet (yes, ballet – more about that later) and of course the wonderful music of Rodgers and Hammerstein. An Okie who grew up on the family farm, Johnson says in his program notes that “Oklahoma” was one of the first songs he ever learned. Clearly, and to the delight of the audience, Johnson hasn’t gotten the song or his passion for the roots of the material out of his blood.

The stand-out in the cast, both dramatically and vocally, is Marcus DiMaggio as Curly, the cowboy in love with Laurey (a well-cast Lauren Moore). But he has to fight for her – literally – as the brooding farmhand Jud Fry (Travis Nefores) stakes his claim and gives Laurey and her Aunt Eller (Janice Peters) much to worry about. Peters and Nefores are a delight to watch in any roles they take on, and here they don’t disappoint as they personify the good and the bad, respectively. 

Nefores has a key role in the “Dream Ballet” that closes Act 1 and captures the essence of the show’s dramatic conflict. Through graceful, powerful body language, the entire cast comes together in a triumphant play-within-a-play under Johnson’s masterful guidance – no small feat when dealing with cast members whose experience with dance and movement varies widely.

That variation at other times during the show leads to a few small lags in energy as the forward motion of the plot takes center stage. The show runs long – Act 1 comes in at an hour and twenty minutes alone – so a few judicious cuts could have been made (“It’s a Scandal!” in the first act could be jettisoned with no loss of continuity). That being said, the “Dream Ballet” sequence is so riveting that it begs to be lengthened.

Other memorable cast members include Lester Wilson as Ali Hakim the peddler, whose “Persian” accent ranges far and wide but gets the job done as he tries to work his way into, and then out of, Ado Annie’s affections. Randy Lee Hose and MJ Johnson, as the “Dream Ballet” Curley and Laurey, carry us away with them absolutely.

Johnson has assembled a fine crew that makes the exacting technical details of a production as demanding as this look easy. Lighting designer John Battalino along with sound and lighting operators Michelle Roberson and Pam Hester deliver the invisible support that is so vital to that which is visible. Sharon Woodside, Karen Miles and Rosemary Canfield have designed and built engaging costumes that could use a bit of dirt and scruffiness to convince us that we are in the rough-and-tumble Oklahoma Territory of 1906. 

In the “Behind the Scenes” department, it’s a little acknowledged fact that there are “angels” in the local performing arts community who may never toil over a set, scrounge props or costumes, or tread the boards themselves. Instead they provide resources that are sorely needed to see that shows such as “Oklahoma” continue to see the light of day in SLO County. Two of those angels are Ruth and Bob Bostrum, who sponsored this production – one of scores of shows they have helped Little Theatre produce over many years. Next time you see one of them around town, take time to say thank you. Better yet, consider following their lead and become an “angel” as well to a favorite arts group.

From “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” to its finale, “Oklahoma” runs vibrantly through November 6 at SLO Little Theatre in downtown San Luis Obispo.