Saturday, July 7, 2018

"Oklahoma!": Day 7, Play 7, Theatre Eddys at the 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Richard Rodgers (Music), Oscar Hammerstein II (Book & Lyrics)

Royer Bockus & Tatiana Wechsler
After relishing an overture that is packed with numbers now encased in the Great American Songbook (during which audience humming and outright singing of words can readily be heard), anticipation is high for those first few notes of “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.”  But for the first time its seventy-five-year history of thousands of productions worldwide, the handsome, bow-legged cowhand who saunters in while singing those lines in chaps and boots is a cowgirl, not a cowboy. 

Bobbi Charlton & Tatiana Wechsler
There is still the expected gosh-darn swagger, the tip-the-hat politeness, and the cock-eyed confidence that all is right with the world that every well-performed Curly brings to the stage.  However, by the time this Curly shatters the morning air in her glorious contralto, “Oh what a beautiful morning,” we know that this Oklahoma! is going to be something extraordinarily special.  As if we needed any more hints, the big-smiling, transgender Aunt Eller -- pumping her churn in time with Curly’s singing -- underscores that this Oregon Shakespeare Festival Oklahoma! is a diamond anniversary production that Richard Rogers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics) could surely never ever have imagined.

Oklahoma! is a rousing, foot-stomping, heart-warming adventure set in 1906 as one of the last of the original forty-eight states is about to join the union.  In their wartime, 1943 musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein solidified notions introduced in the 1927 Showboat (Kerns and Hammerstein) that a musical’s songs should advance the story (and not just be there for entertainment) and that musicals could be much more than just fluff and fun by introducing serious, even controversial themes. 

While there is much silliness, sparking, and spunk in Oklahoma!, there are also threatening clouds that keep cropping up on the horizon.  Two love triangles raise issues of class divides and prejudice against foreigners.  Neighbors are pitted against each other over land rights; and heroes and heroines turn out to as human as most of us are, with traits that are not always totally admirable.  But the dream of a tomorrow where unification can add up to something bigger and better than remaining divided and apart – be it the joining of two people into a couple or of a whole territory into a state – allows Oklahoma! to rise to near epical levels 

The Cast of Oklahoma!
The 2018 OSF Oklahoma! imagines what it might have looked like if this frontier state had begun as something more than a collection of mostly white heterosexuals stuck in traditional gender-defined roles (men roping the cows and plowing the fields, women shelling the peas and making fancy picnic lunches).  Director Bill Rauch challenges us to consider a state formed by yes, a majority of heterosexuals, but one where also lesbian-and-gay-coupled neighbors; a respected transgender matriarch of the community; a cis-gender, bisexual trader; a cross-dressing guy; and a bevy of cowhands of all races is a state as normal as apple pie, banjo playing, and square dancing.  Once we smile a few times hearing the gender-based pronouns in the much-beloved songs changed to match the same-sex coupling and once we wink at each other in some delight hearing “Ado Annie” is tonight “Ado Andy,” what is soon evident to us as audience is that the power of the Rogers and Hammerstein music and story tonight takes on a new, fresh, fully satisfying feel where old friends (songs and characters) are re-introduced as welcome, new acquaintances.

With a voice solid with deep resonance and yet with a sparkling feminine side that adds new meaning, Tatiana Wechsler is the cattle-herding Curly McClain who (female or not) “is so bowlegged that she could not stop a pig in the road.”  Notes lift easy and precisely and often with just a hint of playful devilishness as she describes “The Surry with the Fringe on the Top.”  She dutifully woos her one-and-only, the blonde and skirt-wearing Laurey Williams; and in doing so, she is sometimes awkward with an aw-shucks look and is at other times stubborn with a feigned, hurt face.  She is also often a bit sneaky with twinkling eyes betraying her otherwise smug grin, like when she pretends to court the overly silly, high-cackling Gertie Cummings -- humorously played by girly-girl Stefani Potter -- just to make Laurey jealous. 

Tatiana Wechsler & Michael Sharon
But her squeaky clean Curly also has a more sinister side.  In “Pore Jud Is Daid,” she hints in fairly graphic terms to the slithering, sinister-looking farmhand Jud Fry -- who also has a strong hankering for Laurey -- that committing suicide by hanging might be a way to get people finally to like the sullen recluse everyone in the community avoids.  However, as the competition builds between the two to an ultimate showdown, this Curly erases any doubts of her true good nature, bringing a sense of nobility, sacrifice, and bravery that is just the kind needed to conquer evil, win a girl’s love, and declare a new state in a voice that soars in the rousing, climatic “Oklahoma!.”

Equally impressive in his performance is Michael Sharon as the dark-in-spirit Jud Fry.  Jud shuffles in a slithering manner about the farm with head slightly down but eyes always on alert and with a hint of perpetual threat to some undetermined enemy.  His magnetic, animalistic attraction draws a visible, approach/avoidance response from Laurey (his boss on the ranch).  When he finally speaks of his love for her (in perhaps too brusque of tones but still with emotion-filled words), he comes under her vicious, verbal attack as someone below her social status. 

As Laurey shows her darker side, the deep hurt in those round eyes of black lead to a few moments of our true pity for Jud as someone perhaps too misunderstood by those around him.  When Jud expresses himself in song (“Lonely Room,”) -- his muscles drawn so tight as if about to snap -- his half cry/half plead, “The floor creaks, the door squeaks” rises to a full blast of astounding determination, “I ain’t gonna dream no more ... I ain’t gonna leave her alone.”  Overall, Michael Sharon captures a Jud Fry that draws both our sympathy as the misunderstood outsider and our repulsion as a snake with no good intentions.

As the third leg of this love triangle, Royer Bockus more than holds her own as Laurey.  She sparkles in spirit and song in “Many a New Day,” as she lightly skips over notes as if stones in a forest stream while also tapping across the stage with ease and zest.  Her voice easily matches Curly’s in humorous play and sincere expression in their combined “People Will Say We’re in Love” – a song each employs wonderful variations of voice and phrasing from sardonic to silly, from near operatic to clearly country, from soft whisper to trumpeting declaration.

Royer Bockus & Ensemble Members
When the two reprise the same song as their love is finally solidified, the radiance of her shining face is only trumped by that of her radiating voice.  There are times when in song she is like a plains’ meadowlark, so easy does she glide and project “Out of My Dreams.”  Likewise, Ms. Bockus is stellar in dance, joining full stage numbers with much high-stepping athleticism or with floating ease in a style of a ballerina.  This is particularly true in the moving close to Act One when she and the company portray in a stunning, superbly performed part-ballet, part-interpretative-dance Laurey’s dream/nightmare of the rivalry between Jud and Curly.

But the riches of this Oregon Shakespeare Festival cast spread way beyond the three, lead roles.  The other potential, same-sex pairing between Will Parker and Ado Andy is a continual source of much laughter and fun as well as an inspiration to see how natural their on-again, off-again courting appears as two men who are clearly in love but still with tendencies to shop around other handsome, hunky possibilities.

Jordon Barbour & Jonathan Luke Stevens
As Will Parker, Jordon Barbour shines with ebullience and excitement of voice as he also performs high-air leg kicks and fast two-stepping in the crowd-pleasing “Kansas City.”  Just as attention-worthy is his sought-after love, the high-spirited Ado Andy (Jonathan Luke Stevens) who bursts into “I Can’t Say No” full of mischief, wandering eyes for other men, and a voice so infectious with fun to insure a liking by all.  His Ado Andy is particularly attention-grabbing with facial expressions that can be as sad a big-eyed, sloppy calf or as frisky and frolicking as a young goat. Ado Andy and Will perform a near showstopper in “All Er Nothin’” as they test just how faithful each might actually be once a marital knot is tied, with each still being tempted even as they head toward that first, full-on, stage kiss that brings a solid round of audience approval. 

Jonathan Luke Stevens & Barzin Akhavan
But to get to the alter, Ado’s burly, shotgun-toting mother in an over-sized ten-galloner, Ma Carnes (the terrific K.T. Vogt), has to be convinced Will has the required fifty bucks “to buy” Ado.  Further, a traveling peddler from Persia (and by the way, clearly bisexual), Ali Hakim (Barzin Akhavan) has to work his way out of being the reluctant third leg of the musical’s second love triangle -- a situation the mustached, wheeler-dealer gets himself into by promising Ado Andy to take him “to the ends of the world” and by his gun-toting Ma understanding that those promises happened in the backseat of Ali’s car.   All of the aforementioned are delightful in their comic character portrayals and talented in their musical and dancing prowess.

The Men of Oklahoma!
As wonderful as all the core cast members are individually (including Bobbi Charlton as the elderly, friend-to-all Aunt Eller so full of spry energy, wry wit, and ready advice), this production really shines when the full cast is on stage in song and dance.  Choreographer Ann Yee time and again turns the rather small stage of the Angus Bower Theatre (for a musical and cast this size) into eye-popping, foot-tapping, choreographic yee-haws.   Numbers send audience whooping and hollering in delight -- whether ones with all women in “Many a Day,” with all men in “Kansas City,” or with the full cast of twenty-plus in the barnyard extravaganza, “The Farmer and the Cowman,” where square, line, and polka dances are performed in both mixed-and-same-coupled pairings.  In all the numbers, skirts unfurl and twirl madly, boots hammer with gusto their rapid dance rhythms, and bodies fly through air with group precision – all the while voices sing in magnificent harmony and smiles beam on all. 

Daniel Gary Busby & Orchestra
Daniel Gary Busby leads the seven musicians who render in full due the beloved Richard Rodgers music with the sound of an orchestra two-to-three times the group’s size.  Linda Roethke definitely had some fun creating the costumes that butch up western-style cowgirl and cowboy alike while donning the more feminine in attire befitting the dress-up frontier social.  Sibyl Wickersheimer has minimized the scenic design, allowing a traversing fence that becomes a stage for both courting and dancing to be the main element, with the oft-dominant farmhouse of Oklahoma! stagings seen only as a slither to the side.  

But the strangely unadorned, Western-plains-colored curtain used as a backdrop does allow the lighting designed by Christopher Akerlind to play a major, starring role.  A muted sun seeps though the curtained sky but becomes brighter as the story progresses, transforming into a harvest moon like occurs in dreams.  Fantastically giant shadows across the sky accentuate choreography as well as moments of tension and conflict, of courting and love. 

Jonathan Luke Stevens & Jordon Barbour
Oklahoma! is much more than just a treasured heirloom of the American musical library to be pulled off the shelf from time to time, especially in our current, political state of affairs.  The teetering balance between divisive breakdown and total unity within a local community is a theme of this 1943 musical that resonates louder than ever in 2018 America.  But adding the elements of gender-popping/gender-bending casting along with mixed-race couples and a mixed-race community is a shining example of the kind of community that can move beyond its otherwise, deep divisions in order to be inclusive of all types of people and thinking.  Maybe none of our states began this way; but congratulations to Director Bill Rauch and Oregon Shakespeare Festival for reminding us in such a flawless, uplifting, thought-provoking (and yes, totally fun) fashion that this Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! can be and should be what all our communities aspire to be in 2018 America.

Rating: 5 E (Can I say “5+”?)

Oklahoma! continues in the Angus Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Jenny Graham

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