ASHLAND — Oklahoma! broke new ground when it debuted in 1943: It was the first time Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II paired up to create a musical, for starters. If you’re skeptical that it could still break new ground in 2018, you are not alone. It’s hard to imagine a musical about finding love in the Oklahoma Territory as very relevant, let alone earth-shattering, in today’s world.
But before you write it off, take a peek at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s version, which opened last month and continues through October 27 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. This new production is directed by OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, the visionary who has led the festival since 2007 and will depart in August 2019 to lead the Perelman Center in New York’s World Trade Center. Rauch has pushed OSF further into embracing inclusion, diversity, and equity —and that is nowhere clearer than in his Oklahoma!
This is inclusive rethinking and casting at its most innovative. Rauch’s production reimagines Curly (Tatiana Wechsler) as a woman and Ado Annie becomes Ado Andy, a flirtatious boy torn between his affections for Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler (Barzin Akhavan makes this character more than the stereotype you might recall from previous versions), and Will Parker (Jordan Barbour), the not-that-bright-but-in-love cowboy. Jonathan Luke Stevens is pitch-perfect as this reimagined Ado Andy. When he explains to Laurey that no “fellers” gave him the time of day until he “rounded up a little,” he shoves his rear end out for emphasis. This is a (hilarious) breath of fresh air for women, who have suffered our whole lives at the stereotype of men desiring nothing more than a buxom bombshell. Stevens’ entire performance is made funnier because he is a man at the “butt” of these far-overdone female stereotypes (for example, when Will calls him the “sweetest sugar in the territory” or says he is going to “make an honest woman out of him”).
The same can be said for Curly as portrayed by Wechsler. She dives wholeheartedly into the rough-and-tumble tough-guy caricature that Oklahoma! has given her — and her tough-guy words and actions are funnier because she’s a girl taking on men. There is even an element of fear for her when she ends up alone in the smokehouse with Laurey’s frightening hired hand (and suitor) Jud (Michael Sharon, showing range in a role without that much of it). She heads there to sing “Pore Jud Is Daid,” trying to convince him to off himself. It’s funny and ludicrous, sure, but we live in 2018, so it’s hard to watch a woman — even a tough one — put herself in this situation with someone as terrifying as Jud.
There are transgender and gender-non-conforming actors and characters: The fantastic Canadian actor Bobbi Charlton plays Aunt Eller; Will Wilhelm and Jen Olivares play cross-dressing/gender-nonconforming cowhands. An especially relevant, timely, and horrific moment in Laurey’s dream (or nightmare) ballet at the end of Act One occurs when Wilhelm’s Leslie and Olivares’ We’wha are stripped of their respective clothing and swapped into the more gender-conforming options. That occurrence feels all too real right here and now, and that’s heartbreaking.
Beyond the casting and approach — which are close to but not quite everything here — everything else comes together for musical theater magic. This is a big Broadway musical with an orchestra collective, and individual singing and dancing, and strong performances. OSF delivers beyond expectations on every front. The seven-piece orchestra led by Music Director Daniel Gary Busby is fabulous and truly part of every scene. The performers, who can sing, dance, and act (Stevens as Ado Andy and Royer Bockus as Laurey deserve special shout-outs for being true triple threats, at the least; Stevens jumps and tumbles around the stage, and Bockus is stunning in her Dream Ballet, reminding us not to think Laurey is just a pretty face). And those big, all-cast song-and-dance numbers (and fight scenes) are jaw-dropping. Choreographer Ann Yee and fight director U. Jonathan Toppo deserve a large part of that standing ovation the audience is bound to give after every performance.
Everything else — scenic design by Sybil Wickersheimer, costumes designed by Linda Roethke, and lighting by Christopher Akerlind — is up to or beyond the standards you come to expect from this repertory theater gem we are so lucky to have within driving distance. It all comes together here — in Oklahoma! and OSF’s 2018 season in general — to delight and amaze audiences.
But, of course, there are more important reasons this musical is being put on this way in this time. Despite the legalization of gay marriage, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo, we are very much still living in a hetero white man’s world – especially in the past couple of years. This Oklahoma! allows us to imagine a different world, a new, wide-open prairie frontier. In this world, a female Curly can win the heart of Laurey, a male Will Parker can tame the wild Ado Andy, and the happily married couples are all mixed-race. One of the very few hetero white males in this Oklahoma! (even Ado Andy’s father has become his mother here, played by the incomparable K.T. Vogt) is Jud, and we all know his story: He is a problem that must be solved, in order for everyone else to live happily. This is more relevant with this inclusive cast than it’s possibly ever been. But let’s be clear: It’s not because anyone else wants Jud to go away; it’s because he refuses to accept the way things are changing, despite everyone trying to help him come around. OSF’s Oklahoma! will make you laugh, clap, cheer, and believe that the moral of this story might come true on our own sometimes scary frontier.
- Oklahoma! continues through Oct. 27 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Ticket and schedule information here.
- Barry Johnson reviews the 2018 season’s first four productions, all still in the repertory, for ArtsWatch: Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2018: The first round.
- Daniel Pollack-Pelzner discusses recurring themes in the season’s first four shows (Destiny of Desire, Sense and Sensibility, Othello, Henry V) for ArtsWatch: OSF: Changing the social order.