Arts Desk

Oklahoma!, Okay? Theater Critics Experienced and Less So on Arena Stage’s Maybe, Possibly, Perhaps Broadway-Bound Update of an American Classic

Eleasha Gamble as Laurey & Nicholas Rodriguez as Curly in Arena Stage's Oklahoma! They are not white.

Right, so Arena Stage grand dame Molly Smith's revival of the beloved 1943 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! is a very palpable hit, setting sales records records and christening the new, sexy-looking Mead Center for American Theater in fine style. And the new, nontraditionally cast (read: brown faces in significant roles, including our two romantic leads, Laurey and Curly) production totally deserves all the bank it's making, according to our own Bob Mondello, the Washington Post's Peter "Don't you TOUCH ME!" Marks, and others.

Could this A-OK Oklahoma! follow the path to Broadway trod by other recent Arena successes, like 2007's 33 Variations or last year's Next to Normal, which collected a Pulitzer Prize for Drama? Theodore S. Chapin, president of the organization that controls the rights to Rodgers & Hammerstein's musicals, tells the New York Times: Sure, maybe!

Patrick Healy's NYT ArtsBeat piece notes that only two musical revivals are currently slated for next Broadway season, which would require two more entries to round out the musical revival category at next year's Tony Awards. Appeal to the young 'uns—of which, I am, among CP's crack theater-reviewing trio, the closest (though not an especially close) approximation—would be a selling point for this all-new Oklahoma! Er, right? Because the kids, they go to theater in droves, do they not? Hello? Is this thing on?

With that in mind, we are publishing revealing! excerpts! from a series of e-mail communiques between Mondello and myself ruminating on this, my very first visit, theatrically speaking, to the state with the license plates that say "Native America." You know Wikileaks would publish them if we didn't.

Let's go to the tape!

Klimek: I agree with every point in your review, sir. Sorry to be so boring! This was my first Oklahoma! and I was struck by 1) how slight the story is; 2) how great the songs are; 3) how creepy this thing is, what with the anyone-who-can-cough-up-half-a-C-note-can-have-my-daughter and the Jud-in-his-Silence of the Lambs dungeon—sorry, smokehouse—with his "artistic photos" that don't talk back to him; 4) how I checked out of the show completely during that interminable dream sequence with pseudo-Curly and surrogate-Laurey and real Jud. When Dream Laurey stabs Dream Curly, is that, like, foreshadowing how Jud will stab himself while attempting to murder Curly before Curly is subject to kangaroo court proceedings (albeit in his favor) in RE: The Death of Jud?

I guess what I'm saying is that knowing the show only by reputation, I expected a wholly, dully wholesome experience punctuated by some great songs, and was happily surprised to get something naughtier and more self-aware than that. With some great songs.

And then Mondealio was all like, Let me take those one at a time!

Mondello: 1) Slight story? In 1943, that story was considered seriously heavyweight, musical books having previously been little more than clotheslines for the hanging of jokes and songs.

2) Great songs —a given to anyone in my generation. I’ll finally be able to tell my “furry with the syringe on top” joke to people under 40 if enough folks see it.

3) Plot point: It’s not anyone who can cough up $50; it’s if Will is ever worth $50. Annie’s dad knows him. And the biggest problem with the show at Arena is that they didn’t make Jud creepy enough. He’s handsome, considerate when waking up Laurie, stands up straight, and looks at dirty pictures in private when everyone else — Will and the boys, even Aunt Eller — does it in public through that kaleidoscope. Apart from staying in his room (after, remember, he’s been slaving outside all day), there’s nothing to disqualify him from being a swell hubby. Consequently, he’s usually played bent, fat, snarling, and nasty as hell.

4) Dream Ballet—yeah…Agnes DeMille messed up musicals for decades with that little innovation. Works fine in, say, West Side Story, when they’re basically dancing the whole thing, but otherwise, I’m with you.

Klimek: This is why I'm here: to get educated.

1) I sort of guessed this from the fact that in his Fresh Air interview the other week, Sondheim made a reference to "after Oklahoma!" which tipped me to the fact this was some kind of a game-changer paradigm-adjuster.

2) My date mouthed the words to every song. It was cute.

3) That's what I thought, but doesn't Annie's Paw just kind of shrug when Annie switches from Team Will to Team Hakim? It really seemed to me he played it like, long-as-I-get-my-fiddy! And I totally get him wanting to make sure Will was worth $50, thus demonstrating his ability to earn a living and support a wife, but wasn't this all discussed in the context of a dowry? Am I imagining this?

3a) On Jud: I will definitely go see the Jud-headlined Sweeney Todd. Your point about him being too handsome sounded like something I said to Trey the other week in RE: Joel Schumacher's take on The Phantom of the Opera (I saw the trailer at another goddamn movie, okay?): "It occurs to me that what's always held this show back is that the phantom is kind of ugly. What if we gave him a jaw and some pecs?"

Mondello: You’re imagining the dowry stuff. Her paw’s holding a shotgun when he first talks to Hakim. Think shotgun wedding (which didn’t require actual impropriety back then, merely the appearance of same…kinda like journalism today).

And suuuurrrrrrre you saw the trailer at another movie. But yes, the jaw ‘n’ pecs approach would be Joel Schumacher’s take on pretty much any male lead.

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  • http://100playproject.blogspot.com Lisa

    Bob - My father used to tell some horrible punny Surrey with a Fringe on top joke. I nearly fell out of my chair at Arena when I heard the song since I didn't know what he was on about as a kid. But now my father can't remember the joke. Can you post your joke so that I can stop thinking about this and finally move on with my life?

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com Jonathan L. Fischer

    @Lisa: Here you go.

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