This is the first production helmed by new artistic director Chris Coleman, and there’s been a lot of discussion about his decision to go with an all-black cast. In interviews, Coleman has described his fascination with the role of African-Americans in Oklahoma, and the black towns that existed there around 1906 — the time period of the musical. The casting is intriguing. It gives those who mentally populate Oklahoma! with traditional movie cowboys like John Wayne and Gary Cooper (or Gordon McRae, who played Curly in the movie) a way of seeing the action through a new lens, giving a twist to the dialogue. And it restores black people to their rightful place in history. Though most of Oklahoma’s black towns were lost to economic struggle by the 1940s, the show still sounds a note of triumph and celebration: It’s about the dawn of a “beautiful morning,” the communal joy of a people claiming their place in the new world. To hear an African-American cast singing “We know we belong to the land/And the land we belong to is grand” in these reactionary times raises a shiver of pleasure. These aren’t symbolic people, either; they’re real folks who quarrel, make up, take care of each other, goof off, like sex, and deal with all the complexities of love.
There’s one piece of grit in this otherwise delicious meal, however: the supposedly comic character of Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler. Though he’s played with slithering elegance by Cooper Grodin, the peddler is a cartoonish stereotype, a womanizer, liar and seller of fake goods. There weren’t many Iranians in the country before the 1950s, so presumably Hakim was inspired by the “Syrian” peddlers of the time — Arab immigrants from the Ottoman Empire. Prejudice against these people was as virulent in the early twentieth century as anti-Arab prejudice is today.
Oklahoma!, which debuted in 1943, was one of the first musicals in which the song and dance numbers are integral to the story instead of just decorative; it also has a real plot, one that includes some serious darkness. Curly loves farm girl Laurey. Laurey won’t admit she loves Curly. They spar. Will Parker wants to marry Ado Annie, but her father is withholding permission. Besides, Ado Annie sleeps around. The darkness emanates from farmhand Jud Fry, a twisted, murderous loner who wants Laurey for himself. Just as the current political climate adds intensity to the idea of African-Americans as American pioneers, the #MeToo movement, with its focus on the oppression of women, highlights Laurey’s predicament. Jud isn’t just a nuisance: He’s a stalker, and a dangerous one, and Laurey is afraid to be alone with him. At one point, Curly confronts Jud with “Poor Jud Is Dead,” a strangely brilliant song that underlines Jud’s narcissistic self-pity. If he dies, Curly assures Jud, he’ll finally attain the acceptance that he never found in life. Enthralled, Jud even joins in the refrain. But minutes later, in “Lonely Room,” he’s venting both his sadness and his vast and nihilistic rage — as Barrington Lee, who plays the role, unleashes his powerful baritone bass.
The casting is all-round terrific. If you’ve seen the movie, you remember the women in swirling skirts and puffy sleeves, but when we first encounter Ta’Nika Gibson’s very appealing Laurey, she’s quietly down-to-earth and dressed in overalls. Gibson’s lovely soprano is a highlight of this production; others include Sheryl MacCallum’s performance as Aunt Eller and Bre Jackson’s comic Ado Annie. Though I wasn’t entirely taken with the dream ballet (truthfully, I wasn’t crazy about Agnes de Mille’s original version, which I watched on video), the dancing is riveting and wonderfully energetic throughout. Rennie Anthony Magee, as Will Parker, is an amazing tapper, and you can’t help noticing the lithe and lovely dancing of Iman Barnes in the small role of Gertie.
Coleman has taken a contemporary approach to a classic musical, and it’s a smashing success.
Oklahoma!, presented by the DCPA Theatre Company through October 14, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.