Oklahoma! at Houston Family Arts Center: Better Than OK

The set up: The much-loved musical Oklahoma!, the first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, set a new standard of excellence for musical comedy in its 1943 Broadway premiere. Now, produced by the Houston Family Arts Center, it springs into joyous, exuberant life at the Berry Center. Set in 1906, just before the title territory becomes a state, Oklahoma! chronicles with amusement the fluctuating romantic interests of the younger settlers, but adds a darker element of conflict as well.

The execution: Dance plays a larger part than usual, and the original choreographer Agnes de Mille used it to advance the story line, as well as to add energy and sweep, and this fine production more than does justice to this approach, with the stage filled at times with almost 50 highly talented and well-rehearsed performers.

The heroine is Laurie Williams, portrayed by Adrienne Whitaker with fresh engaging charm, aided by a lovely voice and wonderful dancing. Andrew Traylor plays her love interest, Curly McLain, and he has the requisite good looks and likability the role requires, as well as a powerful, magnetic singing voice, from the opening "Oh! What a Beautiful Mornin'" to the enchanting "People Will Say We're in Love." I wished for more catlike grace in movement, and more passion in some of the exchanges with Laurie, but Traylor handles deftly a very difficult, dark, quasi-comic scene with the villain of the piece, Jud Fry, portrayed by Tyler Galindo with an intensity and skill worthy of Sean Penn at his best.

Ado Annie is one of the best-written roles, and Lindsay Sloan captures her warm heart and flirtatiousness; she delights with her song "I Cain't Say No." Luke Hamilton plays Will Parker, one of her suitors, and brings spectacular energy and dancing to the part, and Austin Almanza plays the other suitor, the Persian peddler Ali Hakim, who nails his comic scenes with perfect timing - a delight to watch. Heather Hammond plays Gertie Cummings, and has mastered beautifully the high-pitched laugh that is her trademark. Karen Clayton plays the leading role of Aunt Eller and does so with charm and warmth, from the opening butter-churning to breaking up fights to a stint as picnic-box auctioneer. She also dances up a storm, and her enormous talent serves as an anchor to this extraordinarily gifted cast.

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The verdict: Overall direction is by Ilich Guardiola, assisted by Sam Brown, who also did the musical direction, and the choreographer is Ellen Dyer, and they are skilled indeed. Utter professionalism and remarkable talent storm the stage to create a theatrical triumph. This is not merely a musical - it is an event, and one not to be missed.

Through August 6. Houston Family Arts Center at the Berry Center, 8877 Barker Cypress, 281-685-6374.


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