Oklahoma!

Ashland, Oregon
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oklahoma

Music by Richard Rodgers
Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the Play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs
Original Dances by Agnes de Mille
Directed by Bill Rauch

Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been workshopping and mulling over this production of Oklahoma for five years, according to cast member Barzin Akhavan (playing Ali Hakim) when he spoke at a coffee in April.

OSF’s dream was to create an Oklahoma! with non-standard gender roles throughout the territory. Will Parker (Jordan Barbour) is hot for Ado Andy (Jonathan Luke Stevens) and Curly (a definitely female Tatiana Wechsler) is aiming for Laurey (Royer Bockus). There are plenty of mixed-sex couples, yet gender non-conforming, cross-dressing farm hands round out the territory’s population. And, transgender actor Bobbi Charlton stands out as a compassionate and wise Aunt Eller.

Aunt Eller and Curley. OSF photo

Officially blessed by Rogers and Hammerstein, Inc. after a staged reading at the Daedalus show in August, 2016, the casting configuration clearly is making a Statement.

The company has been sending out frequent updates about the suitability of the show with its gender-bending casting decisions. Company members and in-town cognizanti have kept up a steady stream of comments about the progress, the readiness, the freshness of the show. When we walked in for the first performance after Sunday’s opening, I realized that I was expecting to attend an “historic” theater event.

There were not just great expectations for the show, there were extreme expectations.

Surprisingly, at the end of the performance, I felt underestimated the importance and impact of the evening. This Oklahoma! isn’t simply meaningful because of the way it demonstrates that “Love is Love is Love”. It’s good fun.

It entertains with an unbelievably talented seven-person “orchestra” that fills the theater with memorable sound. Thanks to music director Gary Busby! There’s  show-stopping choreography, truly emotion-grabbing excellent singing. And, thought-out and flawlessly acted performances by the cast.

The play is unquestionably deepened by the display of same-sex love and its unremarked-upon acceptance by all of the town. I found myself listening to the lyrics of “I Cain’t Say No”, initially to see how few words had to be changed to let it come out of Ado Andy’s mouth. Because I was listening I found myself reflecting how sexually open the 1931 play and 1943 musical was for what I thought were eras of Victorian prudness. If Ado Annie had been singing, I probably would have hummed along without really paying attention.

That hyper vigilance to the story, relationships, and character veracity stayed with me throughout the evening. I spent energy contemplating exactly what Laurey could do about the unwanted attentions of her psycho ranch hand, Jud (Michael Sharon). I also wondered if Jud’s behavior was more menacing because Laurey was a lesbian. I decided that he was plenty scary regardless of Laurey’s orientation.

The decision to make the population around Claremore diverse in their sexual interest is both brilliant and risky. Any hint of stereotyping or mucking with the basic character traits of the people in the play would have made Oklahoma! crash and burn.

Oklahoma masthead

Sean Jones, Michael McDonald, Al Espinosa, Jordan Barbour, Nemuna Ceesay and Robert Vincent Frank in OSF’s Daedalus Play Reading of Oklahoma! in August 2016. Photo by Jenny Graham.

This Oklahoma has fire, but the good kind! Romance, passion, and community keep the stage hot.

The variety of sexual expressions was never spotlighted or the focus. Instead we had brilliant performances of the traditional all-American musical. Truly brilliant performance, and the decision to let the actors be non-standard sexes without pointing it out was itself genius.

So many scenes stay with me. The dream “ballet” reportedly reprises the original Agnes de Mille choreography, and you understand why it’s a classic. The elaborate sung descriptions of the surrey with the fringe on top fit right into the scenes. And, Jud! Eeeek!  So many different scenes of creepy Eeeek!

Then there are also the moments where the forthright, gentle horniness of the peddler Hakim smack you in the face with their honesty, surprising openness about sex, and success in providing comic relief. And, how about the the happy, helpless sluttiness of Ado Andy bursting forth with hormone-fueled enthusiasm?

This is a performance where each actor deserves to be pointed to and praised. Sorry K.T. Vogt (Ma Carnes), Rodney Gardier (Cord Elam), Cedric Lamar (Ike Skidmore), and … and and… You deserve paragraphs of your own. Even actors with smaller parts like Will Wilhelm (Leslie) should get at least dedicated sentences of cheers.

All of the actors not only nailed their character, sang strongly, and moved flawlessly, but they were nuanced. The boisterous, show-stopping songs were made to serve the story and weren’t ends in themselves.

Director Bill Rauch has to be honored for creating this showcase of meaning and talent. In-your-face, rich subtitly is a neat trick. I’ve already applauded Music Director Daniel Gary Busby, but you really cannot cheer too much for what he’s done. Scenic Director Sibyl Wickersheimer created a set that gave us everything from a cramped bunk room to a wide-open territorial fairgrounds… all right in front of us. Ann Yee, choreographer, made the movements lively, showy, but natural. The costumes by Linda Roethke ranged from beautiful to appropriately scruffy, and they well reflected the gender expression of each character.  In short,  the crafts were excellent.

Oklahoma Ensemble

OSF’s Oklahoma is an artistic masterpiece. The creative team envisioned a very ambitious concept and devised a structure that honored the traditional show while living in the 2018 social landscape. Then they delivered the whole package excruciating well.

Play rating: 5 out of 5 Syntaxes

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