Theater review: Happy trails to Center Stage’s ‘Oklahoma!’

Brianna Horne and Rodney Hicks as Laurey and Curly in “Oklahoma!” at Portland Center Stage/Patrick Weishampel

I do a strange little dance around revivals. I’m usually quite certain that I’m not interested in the revivals of major stage musicals when they are announced. But then I see them, and I realize that I was wrong. I don’t remember them very well it turns out, and I have the “wrong” idea about them, because when I saw the first time, everything was different: I was different, the times were different, the production was different.

So let it be with Portland Center Stage’s “Oklahoma!”. When I first heard about it, I stifled a mental yawn. Really? “Oklahoma!”? Why? Jolly artificial cowboys courtin’ and sparkin’? Surely, I would have better things to do.

But then I learned that Center Stage artistic director Chris Coleman was setting it in an African-American town in the Oklahoma Territory, and that piqued my interest a little bit. The history of the West rarely acknowledges the contributions, the lives, of African Americans, and Oklahoma had lots of all-Black towns. That was more interesting to me than Trevor Nunn’s beautiful technicolor 1999 revival, even with the excellent Hugh Jackman as Curly.

Then I started doing a little research and concluded that I didn’t even remember the last time I’d seen the musical, let alone its finer plot points or “minor” songs (anything but “Oklahoma!” itself and “O What a Beautiful Morning” for me, though if I strained I could remember a line or two of “Surrey With the Fringe on Top). It would be like seeing a new play, really.

So, finally I settled in for the Main Stage production itself on Friday night in the Gerding Theater at the Armory, and as I should have known from the beginning, it bristled with wit and fine tunes, spot-on singing, crimes of the heart, silly stereotypes and absurd plot enlivened by creative actors, and a generally high level of commitment and energy by everyone involved.

Oscar Hammerstein and “Carmen/Oklahoma”

Part of my “research” involved reading Marty Hughley’s preview in The Oregonian, which was characteristically informative. Read it before you go! But if you link to the story online, you’re going to see something disturbing in the comments section, namely some racist trolling by people who somehow figure that an all-black “Oklahoma!” is somehow “reverse discrimination,” despite the fact that we’ve had thousands of all-white productions since the 1943 Broadway production hit the stage.

Trolls are trolls. Racists are racists. I don’t expect any of them to show up here (and I’ll delete their comments if they do), let alone be persuaded by an actual argument.  But the more I looked into “Oklahoma!” the more laughable their position became. Allow me to elaborate?

In 1943, Oscar Hammerstein II opened two shows on Broadway. The more famous one, “Oklahoma!”, was his first collaboration with Richard Rodgers. For the second one he “collaborated” with Bizet’s great, groundbreaking naturalistic opera “Carmen,” for a musical called “Carmen Jones.”

Maybe you already know what I’m noting here. “Carmen Jones” was set among African Americans during World War II — Carmen is a parachute maker and also a human “heatwave,” according to one of her lovers in the musical, a boxer named Husky.  So Hammerstein was doing in 1943 exactly what Coleman is doing now: Re-setting a familiar story to an unfamiliar setting in order to refresh its story and characters. Except that Hammerstein intervened more drastically, of course.

Let’s push the comparison a bit more: All three stories — Bizet’s and both of Hammerstein’s — are set among ordinary people (by that, I simply mean not among “elites” of any sort) with passions that become extraordinary. Their plots are complicated and melodramatic. The Carmens are tragic, and “Oklahoma!” ends happily, but all three have moments funny, tense and sad. Did I mention violent? Yes, that, too.

So, an African-American “Oklahoma!”. Not such a departure maybe, given the direction of Hammerstein’s own thinking, though I haven’t seen any evidence that Hammerstein ever set foot in the Sooner State or knew anything about the African-American towns in the Territory. Why would he? He probably never set foot in Bizet’s Seville, either, and for all I know, Bizet (a Frenchman) never did, either.

We are talking about imagination here, the imagination of the writer. Or rather, the imagination of the adapter, because both Hammerstein and Bizet based their musical plays on previously written material (the play “Green Go the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs, who grew up in Oklahoma, and the novella “Carmen” by Prosper Merimee, who had visited Spain).  “Creativity” is an inherently social activity, even though we seem to create in our own heads and with our own hands.

Portland Center Stage’s “Oklahoma!”/Patrick Weishampel

Back to the show, bullet style

Maybe I mentioned that Portland Center Stage has recently mounted a production of “Oklahoma!” — back up top somewhere? Very recently, in fact. A few stray bullet points about what I saw.

  • The three principals were terrific: Rodney Hicks as Curly, Brianna Horne as Laurey and Joy Lynn Matthews-Jacobs as Aunt Eller. Hicks (whose Broadway credits include “The Scottsboro Boys” and “Rent”) has a fine voice and great energy, and he looks great as a cowboy (costumes by Jeff Cone). Horne projects the youthfulness that makes her initial rebuff of Curly make sense and also her fear of the farmhand Jud. And Matthews-Jacobs provides the moral center of the play and many of the one-liners in an acute performance.
  • The byplay between Ado Annie and Will Parker never makes a lick of sense to me. Ado Annie is boy crazy (or man hungry, or whatever) to a ridiculous extent and still Will pursues her. To the extent that we remember “Oklahoma!” as “corny” this is a big reason. But, Marisha Wallace and Jarran Muse give it their all and succeed in diverting us (or rather, me) from our natural skepticism.
  • Jud is a weird, great character (and the song “Pore Jud is Daid” duet is a highlight of the show), inadequately developed by Hammerstein. Why does he stay in the dark smokehouse surrounded by nudie pictures? Or rather, why doesn’t Aunt Eller provide a better place for him to live? Why does she keep him around if he creeps out Laurey so much?  Isn’t he being exploited here? What happened to him to make him so anti-social? Justin Lee Miller makes him villainous, but somehow also communicates that maybe things weren’t quite fair.
  • Speaking of Jud, the Deadly Kaleidoscope is a pretty strange weapon, isn’t it? And for all the guns around, it’s a little odd that Hammerstein uses a knife to decide things.
  • When Rodgers and Hammerstein were casting the original show, they first thought of Groucho Marx for the part of Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler and Ado Annie’s Other Man. That would have been hilarious, but the original cast was made up  of relative unknowns, keeping the show true to its “ordinary people” roots.
  • Choreographer Agnes de Mille got her Broadway break with “Oklahoma!” and the end of Act One “ballet” sequence, an extended dream by Laurey, is strange and delightful. The cast moves well and I imagine they could manage even more complex dance sequences.
  • We shouldn’t forget that “Oklahoma!” is an ensemble show, and this production is deep with good movers and good voices, especially the latter, and the choir they make is rich and wonderful.  Musical director/conductor Rick Lewis has assembled a fine orchestra, too, and that makes the musical element a delight.
  • Set designer William Bloodgood delivered a characteristic set: clean and functional, smartly detailed and attractive, with lots of movable parts.
  • Richard Rodgers: We haven’t said much about the music itself, maybe because it recedes a bit, in service to the lyrics and the story. But Rodgers is witty in his own way, engaged, inventive, all of which you know already.

If you’re getting the idea that it was a fine night at the theater, then I’ve done my job!

Pure speculation

In the preview, Hughley quotes Coleman: “To me, it’s [“Oklahoma!”] about a community of people who’ve felt like outsiders and are hopeful of being integrated into the larger fabric of society.”I’m not sure that’s supported by the story. We don’t have a comparison between the little community on the prairie and anything else, except for Kansas City: “Everything’s up to date in Kansas City/They gone about as fer as they can go.” Which is part of a song (“Kansas City”) funny on so many levels. Hammerstein!

There is one line, though that stood out for me, maybe because of the African-American setting. It’s in a song at the start of Act Two, “The Farmer and the Cowhand,” sung by Aunt Eller: “I don’t say I’m better than anybody else,/But I’ll be damned if I ain’t just as good!”

So, I started thinking about an alternative “Oklahoma!”, a bleaker one, one that emphasized that community and its poverty even more. This was fed by a photo in the program of a black family homestead in Oklahoma, a crude building with no windows built into a little rise in the land.

Now, imagine Curly sauntering up to that homestead singing “O What a Beautiful Morning,” stopping to banter with Aunt Eller and then watching Laurey come out of that shack reprising the same song. What spirit does it take to sing that song in those circumstances? Or to sing the rousing conclusion “Oklahoma!”, a song with with optimism as high as an elephant’s eye?

Jud is more understandable in that “Oklahoma!”, I think, the desperately poor one, in which his own violence and obsessions seem more like consequences than causes. The $50 lunch baskets are more shocking, too, impossible, really. The next step with the musical may be to do it in black-and-white instead of technicolor, to treat it less as a Broadway fantasy and more like the real thing, whether with a white cast or a black one (or as Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., has done it, multi-cultural).

We are always re-inventing things, right? Intervening and “reviving? Which is why I shouldn’t be SO skeptical of revivals to begin with. Throw “Oklahoma!” a lifeline? Of course!

3 Responses.

  1. Lady Bey says:

    Mr. Johnson,
    Your re-imagined version of an even poorer Oklahoma! intrigues me.
    Question: In regards to Jud, did you mean things “Justin Lee Miller makes him villainous, but somehow also communicated that maybe things were quite UNfair?”

    • Barry Johnson says:

      You’re exactly right (I’ve corrected above — thanks!). I think Miller’s performance suggested the possibility of a more radical re-framing of the play.

  2. Martha Ullman West says:

    I am eager to see this revival of Oklahoma with mine own eyes–I’ve always been fond of this musical, stage version, not the absysmally cute film that was made of it in my youth (long, long ago). Hammerstein was always sensitive to racial issues, as Barry points out with his account of Carmen Jones, but nowhere more so than with South Pacific, which premiered in late Forties, early Fifties–I saw it on Broadway–and begins with that wonderful song, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

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