Woodminster Summer Musicals begins its 52nd season with a big production of the classic “Oklahoma!” (Courtesy Kathy Kahn)

Woodminster’s ‘Oklahoma!’ lights up East Bay hills

Just as the sun set behind the hillside in Woodminster Amphitheater in Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park, Laurey and Curly, strategically standing in the spotlight at the apron of the stage, almost in the audience, sang “People Will Say We’re in Love.”

Romantic and atmospheric, it was a pleasure to behold on the opening weekend of Woodminster Summer Musicals’ production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”

Running through July 15, the presentation marks not only the 75th anniversary of the classic’s birth on Broadway, but also the 52nd season that Producers Associates has offered family-friendly productions (combining professional and community resources) in the East Bay.

Groundbreaking at the time of its World War II-era debut, the show about cattlemen and cowboys at the turn of the 2Oth century had a full-through storyline, character development and an evocative ballet to go with those unforgettable Richard Rodgers’ melodies, from the opening “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” to the rousing Act 2 title tune.

Despite corny and sexist jokes and a story line that doesn’t stand up in the 21st century (the relationships between the men and women are anything but enlightened), “Oklahoma!” is nonetheless worthy of its status as a pioneer of musical theater and well worth seeing.

Woodminster’s large, appealing cast is headed up by the amused, in-command Marie Shell as no-nonsense Aunt Eller; affable and charming Nikita Burshteyn (alternating with Gary Stanford Jr.) as cowboy Curly; lovely Jennifer Mitchell as his love interest Laurey, and Peyton James (alternating with Dwight Mahabir) as threatening farm hand Jud, also vying for Laurey’s attention.

On Sunday evening, the singing actors hit all the right notes, as did Oscar Tsukayama and Gina Velez as “second couple” Will and Ado Annie. Meanhwhile, Rio Martinez, as Annie’s suitor, peddler Ali Hakim, nicely hammed up his comic relief role.

Yet the massive production numbers, with the all-ages ensemble packing the stage performing choreographers Harriet Mason Schlader and Sara Pon’s colorful, varied moves — from foot stomps to high kicks to graceful ballet — were particularly thrilling. (Note: One notable fun chorus member is in a wheelchair.)

A full orchestra led by Mark Dietrich played the famous score, beginning with the fantastic overture, while Christopher Fitzer, making his debut with the troupe, designed the eye-catching set, complete with a patchwork-inspired blue-sky and cornstalk backdrop.

The show is headed up by director Joel Schlader, who is not new to the group. Aided by a thriving volunteer corps (at least by the looks of the program), Schlader, currently the nonprofit’s artistic director, has got things under control. Mentored by his late father Jim Schlader, who started the family business, Joel, through the decades, has done every job on Woodminster’s books, from acting (at 10, he was in “Annie Get Your Gun”) to construction to concessions.

Presented by Woodminster Summer Musicals
Where: Woodminster Amphitheater, Joaquin Miller Park, 3540 Sanborn Drive, Oakland
When: 8 p.m. July 12-15
Tickets: $32 to $69
Contact: (510) 531-9597, www.woodminster.com

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