The posters for “OKLAHOMA!” that opened this week at the Ahmanson make things clear: This isn’t a bunch of White people dancing and singing. This is Rodgers and Hammerstein meets diversity of the Black and White binary. In this Bard Summerscape Production of “OKLAHOMA!” the casting leads to some fun moments, but also questionable ones. If you watch the Ahmanson TV spot for “OKLAHOMA!” that Curly and Laurey aren’t the one’s you’ll be seeing.
Writing this review, I’m watching the 1955 movie that starred Los Angeleno-resident Shirley Jones as Laurey (streaming on Amazon Prime Video). She was blonde and blue eyed with a classical pure tone for musicals. The dance numbers were well choreographed and delightfully costumed.
That’s not what’s happening with this musical at the Ahmanson. The set has a backdrop that looks like a graphite drawing on wood, the wall of a large auditorium where a big community potluck or similar gathering is taking place. People sit on wooden benches and similarly serviceable but not built-for-comfort chairs (scenic design by Laura Jellinek) The ceiling is decorated with strips of shiny paper fringe. In the back of the room, is a band instead of a full orchestra.
Our Curly doesn’t have curly hair and that’s never explained. His Laurey has curlier hair than him. Curly is more comfortable slinging a guitar than a gun although guns are prominently displayed (rifles) on the stage right wall. A few shots will be fired, and you’ll be properly warned about that and informed that none of the guns on stage or in the hands of the actors are real.
Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) based their 1943 musical on Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play, “Green Grow the Lilacs.” The musical “OKLAHOMA!” takes place in 1906 in a city called Claremore. At the time, the land was designated as Indian Territory. Singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'”, cowboy Curly McLain (Sean Grandillo) visits Laurey Williams (Sasha Hutchings) at the farm owned by her and her Aunt Eller (Barbara Walsh). This Laurey is sensibly clad in blue jean pants, a shirt and boots. Curley has waited took long to invite Laurey to the box social dance that night, making Laurey contrite although he tells her about a fine carriage that he’ll take her in (“The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”). Instead, Laurey decides to go with her farmhand, Jud Fry (Christopher Bannow), who is portrayed as a mopey, sullen man.
Another local, Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler) returns from Kansas City where he won $50 and his sometime-girlfriend Ado Annie’s father, Andrew Carnes (Mitch Tebo), promised Will he could marry Ado Annie (Sis) if he ever got that much money together. Unfortunately, Will has spent all that money on gifts and Ado Annie has been spending time with the traveling salesman, Ali Hakim (Benji Mirman). Ado Annie’s father determines that Ali Hakim has gone far enough and needs to marry his daughter.
With Laurey going to the social with Jud and Curly taking Aunt Eller, Gertie Cummings (Hannah Solow) tries to move in and get Curly’s attention. Laurey tries to hide her jealousy of Curly and Gertie as well as her fear of Jud. A confused Laurey buys “magical” smelling salts from Ali Hakim and this usually leads to the extended ballet dream sequence where Laurey’s desire to marry Curly is represented, but ends in tragedy with Jud appearing and killing Curly. I write “usually” because while there is a dance sequence with only one dancer (Gabrielle Hamilton performing choreography is credited to John Heginbotham), it is neither a ballet nor an enactment of a clearer representation of Jud’s character or Curly and Laurey’s nuptials.
With this stripped down version of “OKLAHOMA!” which is given a representational neon sign of “OK!” outside the theater, this dance sequence could have been totally cut without damaging the integrity of this story and it would have improved the pacing under the direction of Daniel Fish. There is some actual dancing at the beginning of Act II as we find all the characters at the box social. In other more traditional productions and the 1955 film version, the dance is used as an opportunity to establish two things: the flirtatious nature of Will Parker and Laurey’s discomfort with Jud. This production doesn’t really seem to do either. Laurey seemed to dance just find with Jud Fry and even did some showy turns. From my experience, and I do refuse to dance with people, women who are uncomfortable dancing with someone often look like they need rescuing. Without introducing more obvious flirtation by Will Parker with other women, Ado Annie’s reply lyric is jarring and almost makes no sense.
The confrontation between Jud and Curly ends up being both men bidding a ridiculous amount for Laurey’s box lunch and the honor of having lunch with her. Curly has already spend money on the rental of the surrey and now sells his saddle, is horse and his gun to raise enough money to outbid Jud. Ever the sore loser, Jud attempts to kill Curly but is foiled. Three weeks later, Laurey and Curly are married, but Jud appears to disrupt the wedding party. In the original musical, Jud’s death is accidental; he falls on his knife. The same is true for the 1955 film although Jud has threatened to burn Laurey and Curly prior to his accidental death. In this production, the self-defense defense is much murkier.
This non-traditional casting has Ado Annie as a hefty Black woman. As dressed by costume designer Terese Wadden, this Ado Annie wears a short denim skirt that allows the audience glimpses of her dancing trunks (I’m assuming) from the back and from the front if you’re sitting in the orchestra section. Her oversized pink top falls precariously over one shoulder then the other as she moves, giving a generous glimpse of her cleavage and her bra. As portrayed by Six with bleached shoulder length hair, this Ado Annie is lusty and earthy. There’s nothing that suggests proper or lady-like. In some ways, Rodgers and Hammerstein were ahead of their time in portraying a woman with a sex-positive attitude in the 1940s, but this Ado Annie is more than sex-positive, she has suggestively careless sexuality and the inability to read social cues of proper dress codes. And that has nothing to do with race, but we still need to discuss it.
Because, as one knows from the production trials and the book of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 “South Pacific,” racism was alive and well in 1940s and certainly history tells us racism existed in 1906. This diversity casting glosses over those troubles and might make it easy for one to forget the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. Tulsa is about 80 miles away from Claymore.
If you’re wondering how Oklahoma fared during the American Civil War, the Five Civilized Tribes supported the Confederacy with about 3,500 Native Americans serving in Confederate units. Two major Oklahoma units were predominately Native American: The Confederate Indian Brigade and the Union Indian Home Guard.
After the war, according to OKHistory.org:
The Five Tribes lost the western half of Indian Territory to Kansas tribes, slavery was ended, freedmen obtained citizenship and property rights, and the tribes had to permit railroad construction in the area. Indian Territory was now unofficially called Oklahoma, and while the government did not impose a territorial organization upon the land, the tribes agreed to work toward having a governor and an intertribal council. The pre-war status as separate, independent nations was expected to end.
If you wonder why I think the Native Americans are important here, it’s not just because in 1906, Oklahoma was Indian Territory. Claremore is an actual city that was incorporated in 1883. It’s the birthplace of Will Rogers and is in Rogers County.
The modern-day state of Oklahoma is predominately White (63.8 percent White alone and not Latino/Hispanic). Black alone is 7.8 percent. Black/African American in California is 6.5 percent. However, like in California, the Black population is not the largest minority in Oklahoma. Hispanic/Latino in the state of Oklahoma is 11.7 percent. American Indian or Alaska Native are 9.7 percent (Asian Americans are 2.5 percent). For a contemporary portrayal of the state, there should be more Latino and Native American representation.
The musical takes place before statehood. Oklahoma became a state in 1907 (16 November). In 1907, the population was 86.8 percent White (and that might have included Latino/Hispanic), 7.9 percent “Negro” and 5.3 percent “Indian.” There was a small population deemed “Mongolian”: a total of 75 people (out of a total population of 1,414,177).
In 1890, the White population was 66.7 percent. The Black population was 8.4 percent. Yet the “Indian” population was 24.9 percent. That’s how the state at large was.
Yet, current day Claremore is a different story. Claremore is currently 67.6 percent White alone, but 64.4 percent White alone and not Latino/Hispanic. The Black or African American population is 2 percent. The Asian American population is 1 percent. The Latino/Hispanic population is 5.8 percent, but the largest minority is the American Indian/Alaska Native population at 16.7 percent. (For the curious, Tulsa currently has a Black/African American population of 15 percent compared to a Native American/Alaskan Native population of 4.5 percent. While the Asian American population is 3.5 in Tulsa, the Latino/Hispanic population is 17 percent.)
Knowing this makes me a bit uneasy about the demographics of the current casting of “OKLAHOMA!” In addition, the program notes indicated that Lynn Riggs (1899-1954) was born in Claremore, OK to a father who was once a cowboy and a mother who as part Cherokee. Both of the female leads are Black/African American, when in actuality, Black/African Americans are such a small part of the current population of Claremore. The casting of Jud Fry as a minority instead of a psychologically disturbed White man with an obsessive desire for Laurey might have made a more intriguing and convincing staging of this version of “OKLAHOMA!”
There are some beautiful moments in this production. The voices of Grandillo (as Curly) and Hutchings (as Laurey) blend beautifully if you don’t mind the slip sliding and country twang. Both Ado Annie and Gertie’s casting doesn’t go for the traditional slender actresses. Both Sis and Solow are buxom but Sis is decidedly thicker. Winkler seemed shorter and is definitely lighter than Sis and that lends to some physical comedy.
If you’re looking for beautiful period costumes and exuberant big dance sequences, this isn’t going to be “OK!” But I did enjoy listening to the interpretation of the singers even though I think this diversity casting is misleading and not representative of Claremore or the state of Oklahoma as a whole.
“OKLAHOMA!” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre until 16 October 2022. This reimagined version did win the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, but while I did buy the Broadway cast CD album, I still prefer the 1955 version.