I was excited to see Oklahoma! live as an adult - and of course extra interested to see Portland Center Stage's production with its all-African-American cast. There's true historical relevance to this casting. Oklahoma! is about America during the period when Oklahoma was on the verge of becoming a state, and the play is full of the icons of the old Southwest - the cowboy and the farmer, the box social and the surrey with a fringe on top - but most of us just have one basic vision in our heads when we think of this era, and that vision is white. Yet one in three cowboys was not white. There were lots of black cowboys, and in the Oklahoma Territory back at the turn of the last century, there were many towns that were all African American. PCS has a really cool blog post with some great old photos about this here.
So, right away, there's an extra layer to this version of the musical. And the production is well researched in terms of set and costume, and even in dialect. A voice coach was brought in to teach cast members to speak the way African Americans spoke in Oklahoma in 1906. In fact, here's another really interesting PCS blog post about that.
Of course, everyone's been wondering what this twist would do to PCS' production of the show. For me, yes, it added a bit of richness to the story, but for the most part, any "differentness" in the show disappeared pretty quickly. In fact, with all the expectation there is in the theater world that plays be made "new and different," this particular twist mostly allowed PCS to stage a very classic rendition of Oklahoma - and that's pretty refreshing. Singing and dancing, a little roping. Lots of energy, lots of humor. Some highlights for me:
The first few lines of "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" were surprising and moving. The production number that opens the second half, "The Farmer and the Cowman," was a lot of fun, a great, energetic return after intermission, and the setting was beautiful with hanging baskets lit by candles. There was some lovely harmony in "Many a New Day" (which I listened for, later, in the cast album of the film and didn't hear). The very close of the first half, coming back from the ballet dream sequence, was staged in a way that made it quite chilling, and after all the energy and the dancing, it was almost surprisingly dramatic to me. One of my favorite songs (and favorite odd plot points) is "Poor Jud is Dead," and Rodney Hicks (Curly) and Justin Lee Miller (Jud Fry) performed it beautifully - with the added treat of Hicks mimicking an Oklahoma preacher, which was one of the funniest moments in the show. Ado Annie was played by Marisha Wallace with a huge amount of energy, but not in a way that grated. In "I Cain't Say No," she worked that energy well, bringing it up to a great crescendo in spots like the build-ups to the cain't-say-nos (I cain't be prissy an' quaint / I ain't the type that can faint/ How can I be what I ain't / I cain't say no).
Oklahoma! runs through October 30 at Portland Center Stage.