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Permanent Curly 

It's been a scant four and a half years since the Vance Theatrical Organization brought Oklahoma! to Ovens Auditorium in the most lavish locally-produced musical of the Loaf Era. That impressive production, with Rue McClanahan brought in to headline as Aunt Eller, wasn't our choice for Best Musical of 1997. Big as it was, that eye-popping effort didn't connect for me viscerally.

Nor do I prefer it to the current, more modestly scaled version of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic currently on view at panoramic Pease Auditorium. Scenery by Robert Croghan for the CPCC Summer Theatre version isn't close to the splendor we saw on the big Independence Boulevard stage. Producer/director Michael Vance was also able to do more with lighting and featured performers in the climactic dream dance at the end of Act I.

But Tom Vance, relying exclusively on local talent for the major roles, gets better singing and acting than Vance fils. Most importantly, he gets Patrick Ratchford to do Curly at a point in his development when he is supremely suited for the role. Ratchford's dramatic power is now as potent as his vocal artillery -- and it's making his singing better than ever.

Consequently, I was taken by the warmth, the wit, and the ardent wooing of "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" more completely than in any performance I've ever seen -- including the screen version. With Ratchford finding new nuances all evening long, there's suddenly more to Curly than just a good-looking hankerin' cowpoke.

As Laurey, Susan Roberts Knowlson proves more than worthy of Curly's ardor. Big, blonde, and able to dress down to farmer's overalls without dimming her appeal, Roberts gives Laurey the customary mixture of maidenly modesty and womanly urges, adding an extra measure of backbone.

By the time Curly and Laurey square off for their "People Will Say We're in Love" duet, the chemistry between the two is hot enough to cook a hearty breakfast. It's a trademark Rodgers & Hammerstein moment, designed to give the lovebirds an opportunity to bill and coo -- in Act I before they've committed to each other. Like the glorious "If I Loved You" in Carousel, the love they revel in so deliciously is both hypothetical and inevitable.

You won't hear it done better at six times the price of CP tickets, a rather amazing 15 bucks a pop. Stephen Ware completes the melodramatic triangle as grubby hireling Jud with a tad more dementia than we saw from him at Ovens -- and a thicker layer of obsequiousness.

The secondary comical triangle is solid but not as outstanding as the headliners. Loose-limbed and slack-jawed, Billy Ensley still renders the randy Will Parker superbly, though he's nearly two decades beyond the right age -- and his "Oklahoma hello" is more tepid than most. Nothing wrong with Ensley's hoofing, however, as Charlotte's preeminent triple threat retains his crown.

Steve Bryan captures the sleazoid essence of roving peddler Ali Hakim. The Persian accent, sad to say, seems to have been picked up cut-rate at a Brooklyn bazaar.

All the meager deficiencies of Bryan and Ensley might evaporate if they had a more fetching and lascivious Ado Annie to pursue. Unless she's been surgically altered since last summer, Holly Riley has more spark to give us than we're getting now. None of the design team has been enlisted to her aid. Sexier clothes, more vivid makeup, and a flashier hair color would all help liven up Ado's pallor.

Vance selects an effective ensemble of backup frontier folk, headed by Pat Heiss as Aunt Eller and Dennis Delamar as Ado's shotgun totin' pappy. While the group won't take Radio City by storm, choreographer Linda Booth works resourcefully within their limitations and, particularly in "The Farmer and the Cowmen," has them dancing with infectious spirit. Tony Wright's flaccid fight choreography is a different story. Upgrade, please.

Once he gets his brass playing in unison, music director Bill Congdon delivers agreeable pulsation and dreaminess all evening long. There's a wonderful range of mood and tempo in the Rodgers score, and this cast of local all-stars embraces it lovingly. Nor is Ratchford alone in squeezing freshness from Hammerstein's 59-year-old lyrics.

Somehow when a new CP theater is still in the blueprint phase -- and budget cuts are blanketing our proud community campus -- Vance & Co. have wangled a new sound system for Pease Auditorium. It functioned flawlessly last Thursday, though I felt sound designer Gary Sivak rode a tad lightly on the gain. Another coup for Vance: after delivering such marvelous chemistry between Curly and Laurey on a make-believe surrey early on, we get the real thing after the weddin'.

Definitely an OK way to kick off CP's 29th season.

The cognitive malady known as amnesia is well known to the medical community. It has also been scientifically determined that, at any given moment, 284 percent of the world's certifiable amnesiacs are to be found on TV soap operas and Hollywood films. Memento is the latest major motion picture to spin memory deficiency into gripping suspense.

So it's curiously refreshing, encountering Fuddy Meers at Spirit Square, to see an amnesia victim as a protagonist in a comedy. If you're going to play fast and loose with medical reality, I'd say that absurdity and satire -- with a soft touch of sentimentality -- are more appropriate than the usual portentousness.

You know you're in for a wild ride at this Actor's Theatre production from the moment you encounter Chip Decker's schizoid set: half homey kitchen, half dingy dungeon. Adding to the asymmetry at Duke Courtyard Theatre, the two sides of the set are at different levels. It's also a symbolic environment. Like our protagonist Claire's memory, huge chunks are missing. Jigsaw puzzle pieces are missing from the walls, the stove, and the fridge.

Claire wakes up into this world every morning not knowing who she is -- and not recognizing the people who are filling her in. One of them purports to be her husband; the other identifies himself as her son -- with sufficient teen brooding and resentment to substantiate the claim. Then there's a limping, lisping man who suddenly materializes in a mask and flees with our heroine.

So the ride begins. Each character Claire encounters adds a new layer of mystery, comedy, and eccentricity. Claire's elderly mom is kindly enough, but she speaks in a muddled stroke-talk that Claire somehow remembers from her nursing days. There's Heidi, a mean-looking customer in a police officer's uniform. Weirdest of all, there's the furtive Millet, who may have escaped from prison, an insane asylum, or some cliched B-melodrama where neurotics talk through their puppet companions.

The diminutive hand puppet, handled by former CL Actor of the Year Mark Sutton, steals at least two scenes -- but not the show. Catherine Smith beautifully captures the newborn fear and credulity of Claire, brilliant in both the comic and dramatic moments. It's her world all the way.

April A. Jones directs with nice insights into the comedy and the curious family bonds enfolding Claire. Mark Scarboro as the husband and Paul Schaffer as the troubled teen make superb contributions, warmly dysfunctional. Jones also seems to see that Act I is building to the sort of screwy mayhem George S. Kaufman favored when bringing the curtain down for intermission.

This was the only spot -- the detonation of all that mayhem -- where I questioned Jones's choices. This certainly isn't a time for geometry. Spacing when all hell was supposed to be breaking was too even. Action in the corners of the kitchen grew too static.

After all the wacky adventures of Claire's day, night has fallen and the family poignantly reunites. But as sleep overtakes her, Claire is probably about to forget all that she has learned about herself and her world. Sadder yet, the men who need her will likely lose her once again. Rarely does such an absurd piece have such heart.*

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