CEDAR RAPIDS — “Oklahoma!” gained new attention during its 75th anniversary year.
Theater troupes have been spinning some pretty bold reimaginings since 2018, from changing genders in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production to using an all-black cast in Denver and the current Broadway revival that strips down the feel-good trappings to the show’s darker undercurrents — with a side of chili and cornbread at intermission.
Revival Theatre Company is sticking closer to tradition with its production opening tomorrow (11/21) and running through Saturday (11/23) in Sinclair Auditorium on the Coe College campus.
“Whether you agree with those things or not, I think that’s the beauty in new directors and new designers and new leadership at these theaters today,” said Brian Glick of Cedar Rapids, artistic director for the Revival Theatre show. “They want to flip upside-down these kinds of pieces, not to destroy them, but to say, hey, what other story can be told through this, through the eyes of 2019 or whatever year. And there’s been a great response.”
He hasn’t seen the Tony-winning Broadway revival, but friends and colleagues have told him, “It’s not the ‘Oklahoma!’ you are expecting.”
“And I think the beauty of that piece and what art does, art being subjective, is that people go, ‘I hated that,’ ‘I loved that,’ ‘Boy, I wasn’t expecting that.’ I heard someone say, ‘It’s sexy, it’s moving, it’s scary, it’s dark. There are things I loved about it, things I hated about it, but at the end of the day, it was art.’”
The show actually broke new ground when it opened in 1943. Marking the first collaboration between Rodgers & Hammerstein, the duo won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1944, receiving the rare “special citations and awards” honors.
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“Just in terms of its history, it was monumental in the way we view and the way musical theater is today,” Glick said.
“Oklahoma!” emerged during World War II, and on the heels of the Depression era, when musicals were a form of escapism for audiences.
“They just wanted to be entertained,” Glick said. Even if the songs made no sense with the story, they followed a familiar pattern.
“And so when this came along with a story — and a serious story,” he said, it was a game-changer. “Not only that, musicals prior to the ’40s opened the curtain up with 100 people onstage singing and dancing. ‘Oklahoma!’ opened with one little old woman sitting there, churning butter. You’ve got a ballet in there, you put in dance that has subtext and meaning to the story around it, which was new.
“It totally changed the thinking on what a musical can be.”
“It’s one of those groundbreaking musicals where the music actually has something more to do with moving the story forward — the first of its kind,” said Cameron Sullenberger, the show’s musical director.
And even though it’s set at the turn of the 20th century, a year before Oklahoma became a state, the themes and topics still resonate with audiences.
On the surface, it looks like the good-looking guy, Curly, is going to get the beautiful girl, Laurey, once he moves his rival, Jud, out of the way. And the warring farmers and the cowmen will be friends, while everyone kicks up their heels to the title song and takes rides in a jaunty surrey with the fringe on top.
But it’s so much more than that.
It delves into issues of social class, and how people are treated differently in their communities, Glick said. The character of Jud (played by Joe Wetrich) is mentally unstable after being physically and emotionally abused his whole life.
“He makes very little money. Nobody understands him, so he becomes this recluse — a scary person,” Glick said.
“The other big item that tends to get missed is at the end of the show. When Jud comes in and fights Curly, Jud falls on his knife, and the question is, did he? Or was he pushed by Curly? Aunt Eller doesn’t want a trial to get in the way of Curly and Laurey’s wedding, so there’s no justice. They force something through real quick and on the spot just so they can move on.”
All of those issues, including the way people take ownership of property and possessions, including women, gives the show more depth than is apparent at first glance. It also gave a new perspective to Michael Penick, 31, of Iowa City, who is playing Curly.
“When I was reading that, I was more unsettled by some of the things in the script,” Penick said. “I think just viewing it through the lens of it being 2019 and things that are going on in our country right now, it’s kind of hard not to have those things affect how you experience this show.
“It was a very different experience from how I remember feeling when I watched it when I was younger. When I was growing up, everything seemed very clear cut. Curly’s the good guy. Jud’s the bad guy. Especially with the dream ballet, he very much seems like a monster. And so you’re supposed to feel good at the end of the show, and now, with how we understand mental illness and bullying,” it takes on different connotations. Still, he doesn’t feel Curly acted in a “purposeful, vindictive way.”
Catherine Blades, 27, a Cedar Rapids native who has been working as an actress in New York City for 10 years, is coming home to play Laurey. Local audiences have seen her on the Theatre Cedar Rapids stage as Peter Pan, Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” and Chava in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
She likes the strength of the women in “Oklahoma!” Even when Aunt Eller (played by Nadine Borngraeber) is coming down on her with some tough love, forcing to stand on her own two feet, make some hard life decisions and own up to them, even if she’s apt to fail. They run a farm together, which is a feat of strength any time, but especially in 1906, in a territory without much protection.
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Blades also admires the strength of Ado Annie (played by Lauren Galliart), who seems like the polar opposite of Laurey when it comes to men.
“I think they’re both very strong in different ways,” Blades said. “Laurey is obviously playing hard to get, but she has these visions of what she wants her life to be like. She’s wanting something (but) she doesn’t need a man. Sure, she certainly loves Curly, but she also wants things outside of Curly. I like the line, ‘I wouldn’t feel sorry for any man no matter what.’
“And I also love the Ado Annie part. She loves men and she’s proud of it. I think it’s really cool that they’re both very strong individual women in different ways, but it works really well together.”
The show is being presented in concert format, where a chorus and orchestra will be onstage, but there will be plenty of action and full costumes with the characters.
“We are honoring the classic production with our ‘In Concert’ trademark, which presents the show with everything an audience might want, minus lavish sets,” according to music director Sullenberger. “It’s the first time a professional theater and not a high school (in the area) has ever presented this classic. We are very proud of that.
“The music is well-known, and since so many people have a connection with it somewhere in their past, I’m honored to help them relive their fondest memories of the score and of their youth.”
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• What: Revival Theater Company: “Oklahoma!”
• Where: Sinclair Auditorium, Coe College, 1220 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids
• When: 7:30 p.m. today (11/21) to Saturday (11/23)
• Tickets: $35 to $45; Paramount Ticket Office, 119 Third. Ave. SE, (319) 366-8203 or artsiowa.com/tickets/concerts/oklahoma/ Students and veterans $25, only at the box office or by phone
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• Details: revivaltheatrecompany.com/oklahoma/