By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Not that being our region’s theatrical tastemaker doesn’t keep me rolling in the doubloons, but with the spiraling price of Botox I have to have a day job, too. As an educator for a local non-profit, one of my trainings involves a look back at social history and I exhort the trainees not to view it through 2019 eyes … try to imagine when it was happening for the first time.
I took my own advice at the Pittsburgh CLO production of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein American Musical classic Oklahoma! It would be easy to write off the show as an exercise in nostalgia, but it’s far more interesting if you work to experience it as the original 1943 audiences did. And thanks to a marvelously realized CLO production, much of that work has been done for you already.
Oklahoma! earned its place at the top of musical theater mountain for a number of reasons … it’s the first truly “integrated” musical where the composer (Rodgers), the lyricist (Hammerstein), the book writer (Hammerstein again) and choreographer Agnes de Mille are all telling the same story and everything is part of a relentless march from exposition to denouement. If it sounds simple now it’s only because Rodgers & Hammerstein practically invented the form and then perfected it all those years ago.
Do I really need to recap the plot? (I mean, didn’t you tell me you were in it in high school?) Okay, but this is the last time.
Will Curley take Laurey to the box social?
Okay, okay, there’s more. It’s 1906 and in the Oklahoma Territory (not a state until 1907) trouble’s abrewin’ twixt the ranchers roamin’ the land and the farmers fencin’ it in. We got two crazy kids who love each other like all get out, Curley and Laurey, but they spend their would-be wooin’ time making t’other jealous. Meanwhile, scowling behind the barn is the villainous Jud who wants Laurey, as we used to say, in the worst way. It ends happy, but not without someone dying along the way.
Oklahoma! is/was famous for its opening; no tap dancing chorus in sight but, instead, Curley moseying his way onstage singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” all by his lonesome. It’s impossible to overstate how revolutionary that was.
Nicholas Rodriguez is the epitome of the romantic baritone in the role, just as Sara Jean Ford sings Laurey with a gorgeous soprano. Matt Faucher is both threatening and vulnerable as Jud. If Curtis Holbrook and Ashley Blanchet were any more adorable as Will Parker and Ado Annie they’d be radioactive. And Ruth Gottschall gives Aunt Eller a spine as strong as hickory.
The show’s also noted for the first act finale (again revolutionary) in which Laurey dreams of a future with Curley and Jud … all told through the miracle of dance and de Mille’s legendary choreography; here lovingly recreated by choreographer Mark Esposito and danced beautifully by the CLO ensemble, led by Allison Walsh and Blaine Zelesnikar.
So with my 1943 eyes I was really enjoying this CLO production directed with crystalline purpose and enormous integrity by Dontee Kiehn. The sparse setting (from Michael Schweikardt lit by Paul Miller) enhanced the unadorned, honest performances Kiehn was getting from his cast and it was easy to see why a country in the middle of the Second World War readily embraced a musical showcasing “forthright” American values. Not by accident were the original Broadway producers giving away free tickets to G.I.s in New York on leave to help promote the show.
It all started to get a little fuzzy when I found my 1943 eyes fading, replaced by a more contemporary view. There is, after all, only so much down home, rib-stickin’ cornpone I can take before modern sensibilities rear up.
The most glaring is that these ranchers and farmers are fighting over who has the right to economically exploit land they stole from the Native people and on whom they would visit genocide.
It’s near impossible not to see that all the Marlboro Man machismo as just toxic masculinity scrubbed down and gussied up into Sunday Best. And I couldn’t stop wondering if the great “again” some are hoping to make America isn’t the simplistic, unrealistic and monochromatic world of Oklahoma!
There’s a truly sickening moment at the end of the show when all the townsfolk form a mob and move menacingly on a man advocating for legal due process … and in the face of these nascent vigilantes he backs down.
I don’t remember that queasy feeling in any other production I’ve seen so I don’t know if it’s Kiehn’s staging or that, not content with destroying the Supreme Court, the Great Pumpkinhead has now fucked Musical Theater as well.
Oklahoma! continues through June 30. Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, Downtown. 412/456-6666. www.pittsburghclo.org