A toy train, a tiny town, the cutest little wisps of smoke -- the current national tour of Oklahoma! (at the Opera House, April 13-16) opens with a cinematic wide shot, as if to convince viewers that they "belong to the land / And the land [they] belong to is grand." An earth-mother figure appears, churning butter -- solitary work on the unforgiving plains -- before Curly starts singing in the wings about the "bright golden haze on the meadow."
A DARKER VISION "It's been called 'the darker Oklahoma!,' but that's not the term we like to use -- instead, 'down to earth,' 'a little more realistic.' It's not like the usual musical-comedy thing that's not really real," says Pat Sibley, who plays Aunt Eller, the earth-mother figure.
In 1998, Trevor Nunn of London's National Theatre started re-envisioning Oklahoma! by going back to Rodgers and Hammerstein's source, Lynn Riggs' 1931 folk-drama, Green Grow the Lilacs, in which Curly is detained for trial and has to escape from jail after the accidental death, and poor hapless Ado Annie is left without a promise of marriage. Riggs had grown up in Indian Territory and wanted his play to reflect, not romanticize, the rigors of frontier life. Hammerstein praised Riggs ("his play [is] the wellspring of all that is good in Oklahoma!") but he was writing a musical comedy and neatened up the loose ends.
Oklahoma! is always referred to today as revolutionary because it truly advances its plot with songs and dance. (No more "stop the action, I've gotta break out into song" moments.) But it didn't seem like a revolution at the time: The "No girls, no legs, no jokes, no chance" assessment of the New Haven out-of-town tryout, wired back to Walter Winchell by one of his informants, simply pegged Away We Go! (the play's working title) as too much of a break with vaudeville tradition. In fact, says theater historian Gerald Bordman, Oklahoma! "rejected the topical and contemporary and instead embraced a sentimental look at by-gone Americana."
In 1943, servicemen were admitted free to the Broadway production; many reportedly left in tears, moved by the play's evocation of what the entire country was fighting for. The land they belonged to was grand, and Hammerstein has given them an idealized vision of their past.
By contrast, Nunn's 1998 NT production attempts to earn its optimistic future vision by grounding it in harsher beginnings. Costumes are plainer, muddier; during "The Farmer and the Cowman," fights keep breaking out, reflecting real-life animosities on the Oklahoma Territory range. In Riggs' original, Jeeter (the basis for Jud in the musical) is obsessed by lurid crime and sex: He decorates his hovel with French postcards and long knives. Nunn's vision returns to emphasize the threat from within: Jud's pent-up violence threatens community-building.
Susan Stroman's choreography, says Sibley, is "more erotic" than Agnes de Mille's original dance designs -- reflecting this production's delving into grittier territory. In addition to revisiting Riggs' frontier play and taking out all the musical-comedy shtick (Sibley's first director on this tour kept telling her not to smile and to remain physically and emotionally remote from Laurey, her character's niece), this version has also refashioned the dream ballet: Curly and Laurey do their own dancing, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Foundation gave permission to alter some of the music, and nightmarish violence (Jud's defeat of Curly and near-rape of Laurey) ends Act One on a dark note.
A FANCY DREAM But the show, in true musical-comedy style, responds with a happier dream in the finale. When Curly first provides a list of options on that fancy surrey with a fringe on the top, it's purely imaginary - he doesn't have a cent. By the finale, however, he transforms it into a love song, with Laurey snoozing on his shoulder:
"Hush, you bird, my baby's a-sleepin'/ Maybe she's got a dream worth a-keepin'/ Whoa! you team, and jist keep a-creepin' at a slow clip-clop./ Don't you hurry with the surrey with the fringe on the top!"
The dream of Oklahoma! -- pride in the land, resisting the evil within (like Jud), submerging selfish desires so you can fall in love -- remains, 63 years later and despite frontier harshness, a dream worth a-keepin'.
Oklahoma! sashays into the Opera House on April 13 at 7:30 pm, April 14 at 8 pm, April 15 at 2 pm and 8 pm, and April 16 at 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Tickets: $30-$49. Opera House, 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. Call 325-SEAT.