In 2006, Kent Thompson started his stint as artistic director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company with a brilliant production of Measure for Measure , and many Shakespeare plays followed, including a forgettable Othello and a magical Midsummer Night’s Dream. Judging from his plans for his first DCPA season, Chris Coleman, who has just taken over as artistic director, has an equal respect for the great and timeless, but it takes him in a different and perhaps more exploratory direction. His just-released lineup for the coming season is a mix of old and new, as well as old interpreted through a lens of the new.
Take the second offering of the season, Oklahoma! (September 7 to October 14). This was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first major hit when it opened on Broadway in 1943, one of the earliest musicals to have a coherent story and to use song and dance to deepen the characters and carry the plot forward. The play also drew attention for the taste of bitter it injected into a generally honey-sweet musical-theater world: Jud Fry is the angry, self-pitying farmhand who tries to win winsome Laurey away from Curly, the cowboy she loves. But overall, the tone is light and rollicking, and the songs among the best ever written for a musical. (I’ve had “Oklahoma, where the wind comes rushing down the plain” running through my head ceaselessly since the season announcement.)
Coleman, who'll direct, has added a new element: an entirely African-American cast. He says he got the idea when he learned there were black townships in the early days of the Oklahoma Territory. A version was shown at Portland Center Stage, when Coleman was artistic director there, and though it was enthusiastically received, there were those who chided Coleman for not dealing with the real problems of turn-of-the-last-century black life. It seems to me entirely valid, however, and in some ways more imaginative to have a black cast performing the show’s joyful, life-affirming numbers as a pure celebration, and staking African-Americans’ equal claim to the land.
Something else to watch out for in this production: Agnes de Mille created the original and hugely acclaimed choreography; Dominique Kelley, who will choreograph the Denver production, grew up tapping, performed in Savion Glover’s revolutionary Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk, worked on the lyrical movie La La Land and served as assistant choreographer for the television series My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It will be fascinating to see how he works with the de Mille dances.
We’re guessing this Oklahoma! won’t be a museum piece like so many revivals, but an example of contemporary artists bringing a classic to new and breathing life.
More thoughts on the 2018-2019 season:
The first play, Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone (August 24 to September 39), is a “rap-spitting, pop-culture crusted dramedy,” according to the DCPA’s release. There was a time when the Vietnam War and the plight of Vietnamese refugees were primarily the subject of somber memoirs and sorrowful novels. But the young writers and artists who grew up in this country faced all the contradictions of living between two worlds. They saw their parents’ struggles with American culture — food, slang, convention — and found comedy, even farce, in their own dual identities. Vietgone, set in 1975, tells the story of Nguyen’s immigrant parents through the lively, funny, vernacular voice of today.
And then we’re back in 1926 with English author W. Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife (September 21 to October 21), a drawing-room comedy. This choice is a bit of a puzzler, but the director is Shelley Butler, who helmed the DCPA’s hilarious production of The Most Deserving five years ago, so we have high hopes, as well as one plea: Either tone down the English accents or find actors who can do them.
Lynn Nottage’s terrifying, life-affirming and darkly beautiful Ruined , shown seven years ago, provided one of the DCPA's most profound experiences, and news that her Sweat is on the roster (April 26 to May 26) raises expectations. Nottage is a playwright who combines political awareness with a deep and compassionate humanism. Associate Artistic Director Nataki Garrett helms this one.
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From sorrow to redemption: Sam Gregory returns as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (November 21 to December 24), and we couldn’t be happier. My cynical young grandsons were blown away by his performance and this version of the so-often-boringly-presented classic — the younger suitably frightened by Marley’s Ghost (though he insisted he wasn’t), the older delighted by the magical effects and the show’s sparkling energy. Both were moved to discuss the moral of the tale in detail afterward.
The 2018-2019 season also features two world premieres: Last Night and the Night Before, by Donnetta Lavinia Grays (January 18 to February 24, 2019), which was birthed during the DCPA's Colorado New Play Summit, and Itamar Moses’s The Whistleblower (February 8 to March 10). Two of the season's offerings are by women, and several productions have women directors. Coleman himself will direct a second play, an adaptation of Anna Karenina by Kevin McKeon (January 25 to February 24).
The first show at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, opened on December 31, 1979. Coleman officially arrives at the DCPA next month to raise the curtain on the fortieth season.