National Theatre Live

An article in The New York Times from Sunday, Aug. 19 (sorry, I’m perpetually behind on my reading) examined two Oregon productions of Oklahoma!, the classic 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical being allowed some 21st-century interpretive elbow room. Chris Coleman is about to christen his new tenure as artistic director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theater Company with his version, set amid an all-black town in the Oklahoma territory, of which there actually were a few. The approach was a hit — albeit a controversial one — for Coleman in 2011 at Portland Center Stage, producing an especially vibrant show that introduced local audiences to the marvelous Rodney Hicks, who starred as Curly (and later became Coleman’s husband).

What sparked the Times coverage, though — as the story’s “Ashland, Ore.” dateline suggests — is this season’s production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in which director Bill Rauch has recast the show’s driving romantic relationships with same-sex couples: Curly and Laurey both women, Will Parker and the slightly renamed Ado Andy both men.

Curly (Tatiana Wechsler, right) tries to entice Laurey (Royer Bockus) into accompanying her to the box social, in Bill Rauch’s unconventional Oklahoma! Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Writer Laura Collins-Hughes quotes Coleman about how “really, really picky” the Rodgers & Hammerstein representatives have tended to be about treatment of the shows, and suggests that both a lofty reputation in American theater and a longstanding relationship with Ted Chapin, who oversees rights to the catalog, where needed for Rauch to earn his leeway. Chapin, however, sounds more reasonable than rigid: “For anybody to think they have to be done in exactly the way they were originally done — I mean, that’s sort of Gilbert and Sullivan thinking. And Gilbert and Sullivan is kind of dead.”

Well, maybe so. (Note: Not “Gilbert and Sullivan are dead,’ which is long-established fact about the persons, but “Gilbert and Sullivan is dead,’ which is opinion about the work.)

But here’s the thing: Apparently neither Chapin nor Collins-Hughes caught what Rauch did with The Pirates of Penzance.