OSF’s ‘Oklahoma!’ is as innovative as the original

    Jenny Graham / OSF photo Can Laurey (Royer Bockus) and Curly (Tatiana Wechsler) overcome their pride and admit their feelings for each other? The answer lies in 'Oklahoma!' now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

    Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” was an innovative theatrical narrative of song and dance, America’s wartime, feel-good cultural classic.

    At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, “Oklahoma!” is a rollicking, gender-bending extravaganza that is a satisfying triumph of love, acceptance and community.

    Set in 1906 as Oklahoma enters the union, the play opens as cowhand Curly McLain woos farm girl Laurey Williams, except Laurey is tempted by the bad-boy hired hand, Jud Fry. Roper Will Parker wants to marry Ado Andy, but Ado just wants to have fun. The town social brings conflict to a head, between rival suitors and between farmers and rangers.

    Laurey, played by Royer Bockus, is just a bit standoffish when it comes to Curly, played by Tatiana Wechsler. It’s not that Curly is a woman, it’s that Curly is a cowhand and maybe a bit too nice. This is a musical, and much of the production revolves around Bockus and Wechsler’s fine, strong voices.

    Will Parker, played by Jordan Barbour, finally comes home, $50 in his pocket saved to pledge his troth to Ado Andy, played by Jonathan Luke Stevens. Barbour as Parker is steady and faithful, the classic cowboy hero pining for his sweetie, and what a sweetie Stevens is, catching the eye of any guy around, hopeless in youthful lusty love.

    Played for laughs is Barzin Akhavan as Ali Hakim (“It’s HaKEEM,” as he continually reminds the cast), the quintessential itinerant peddler who loves and leaves at every opportunity.

    The role of Aunt Eller is played by Bobbi Charlton, who wears those frontier frocks with aplomb. Aunt Eller knows love when she sees it, and she makes no bones about scheming to bring about the right match.

    Charlton as Eller is a socializing influence — with a pistol when necessary — as when all hell breaks loose at the box auction. Charlton is tall and straight-backed, gray hair tied in a bun — all so right for a role that represents home-grown, grassroots justice and common sense. Charlton as Eller is the moral center of that rural Oklahoma town.

    Perhaps the most interesting character in the play is Jud Fry, played by Michael Sharon. Sharon is superb in the portrayal of an outsider, a loner, a farmhand who is soiled by work and status. That small community tolerates Jud’s aggrieved masculinity, this person who most clearly broadcasts male, but does not embrace him.

    One of the most famous balletic scenes of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” is the dream sequence. The dream reveals that Laurey is attracted to Jud, mistaking his crude sexuality for romance, and that she should fear his violent nature. Laurey’s haunting fantasy is peopled by shadows that signal her beating heart, her sexual excitement, but the dream turns into a figurative rape.

    The lyrics of “Oklahoma!” are burned into the American consciousness. Many people can join in the title song or the “Kansas City” number or the refrain for “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” It’s the big ensemble pieces that are simply fun — a stage full of athletic actors leaping fences, rompin’ and stompin’ in a hoedown, doing the do-si-do — all accompanied by seven musicians in the pit, appropriately dressed in jeans and bandannas. The best theater demands a live orchestra, and OSF delivers.

    “Oklahoma!” was a musical sensation in 1943 and is again in 2018 at OSF.

    In 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical theater innovation was to introduce narrative expressed in a lyrical arc that told a story. They brought in Agnes de Mille to choreograph the production, adding in dance and ballet to express the story in yet another form. Their collaboration to adapt Lynn Riggs’ “Green Grow the Lilacs” for the stage gave women strong female roles that governed and stabilized a community, women who had their choice of mates, who had power.

    Rodgers and Hammerstein meant “Oklahoma!” as a traditional, gender-defined love story, but OSF celebrates love in a very different way.

    In 2018, Bill Rauch’s “Oklahoma!” innovation is to disrupt the traditional male-female roles and create a new musical tradition that celebrates love and sexuality unbounded by gender or race. Couples mix ethnicity and gender, and dress, hair and mannerism defy defined racial and gender stereotypes, simplifying multiracial, nonbinary, transgender and gender-fluid identities.

    Rauch says he’s wanted to direct this version of “Oklahoma!” for years, a production that would showcase and honor difference, and the show was intentionally cast with diversity in mind. OSF members had lots of advance communication on the production, as Rauch explained his vision, his personal commitment to the LGBTQ2+ community and OSF’s commitment to diversity.

    At last week’s opening, the audience clearly agreed with Rauch’s direction, cheering mightily after every number, after every scene, at every sly sexual innuendo.

    There is no confusion in OSF’s production of “Oklahoma!” The celebration of difference is clear. And that great big sun center stage means home and a commitment to a beloved landscape that is reinventing itself today as surely as Oklahoma was in 1906.

    Keep an eye out for K.T. Vogt as Ma Carnes — she wears that holstered pistol just like a codpiece.

    “Oklahoma!” plays in the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 27, with a sign-interpreted performance May 25. For information and tickets, call the box office at 800-219-8161 or see www.OSFAshland.org.

    Reach freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

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