Portland Center Stage’s Oklahoma! Is Better Than OK!

The source of that “bright golden haze” emanating from the Gerding Theater, illuminating the Portland skyline, is the marvelous Portland Center Stage production of Oklahoma! PCS promised theater-goers a “boot-stompin’ good time”and they more than live up to their promise. Classic songs, exuberant dancing, eye-popping sets, and a talented, gifted cast make this Oklahoma! more than OK – it is downright rollicking good old-fashioned fun. And it’s a love story to boot.

Oklahoma!, the first collaboration of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, opened on Broadway in 1943 and broke all records by running for over 2,000 performances on its way to becoming a classic of American musical theater. But it has also been around long enough to be dismissed as a stale, worn-out portrait of a bygone time. Director Chris Coleman admits: “It’s beautiful material, but it also can be the corniest thing in the world.

While researching the era, Coleman discovered that during the Land Rush of 1889 large numbers of African Americans migrated to the Oklahoma Territory in promise of land, work, and a new life. Up to fifty all-black towns flourished at this time. For Coleman, “Having an African American cast tell this story, for me, feels fresh, legitimate and perhaps newly resonant. For a musical that always risks feeling syrupy sweet, or cornnnnnnnny, grounding it in a real place and time, with real people who are building a life for themselves out of the land, and succeeding at a modest level, feels like it has the prospect of letting the whole thing breathe.” And breathe it does. Under Coleman’s artistic direction, this PCS production infuses not only fresh air but raw energy, enough to enliven this mainstay of musical theater. And it’s a love story. Two love stories.

The show opens as Curly, excellently played by Rodney Hicks, takes the stage, sits and silently shakes the sand from his boot. As anticipation builds, with splendid voice he fills the hall in an stirring rendition of ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning.’ From here on the show just takes wing as the enormously talented cast sings and dances to the creative genius of Rogers and Hammerstein.

Curly exudes the optimism, promise and possibility of the time as Oklahoma was verging on statehood.  “A man has to change with a changing land,” he informs Laurey.  Brianna Horne plays the strong-willed, feisty Laurey. But beneath that high-spirited nature yearns a desire for a different kind of life, one with “bowls of cut glass and fine linens.” Aunt Eller, who provides not only good common sense but great humor, is played by the delightful Joy Lynn Matthews-Jacobs, a joy to behold.

Justin Lee Miller embodies the sullen outcast, Jud. With shoulders rounded, hands in pocket, head facing down, and hat pulled low, Jud scurries across the stage always going somewhere but getting nowhere. As dark and forbidding as Jud can be, he elicits pity when singing in his ‘Lonely Room.’ Curly, the affable, straight-shooting cowboy, and Jud, the moody hired hand, both smitten by Laurey’s charms, vie not only for her picnic basket but for her affection, and from there it gets complicated.

The second romance centers around the flirtatious, impish Ado Annie – the girl who can’t say no. She’s never met a man she didn’t like, which is a source of confusion for the good-natured, but dim-witted wrangler Will Parker Jarren Muse, who plays Will Parker, is flat-out fun to watch as he tries to comprehend the capricious Ado Annie. And his energetic dance number, ‘Kansas City’ provides the first of many “boot stompin’ times” which occur throughout the show. Jonathan Raviv plays the wily Persian peddler Ali Hakim, who likes Ado but prefers a life on the road to one on the farm. Marisha Wallace sparkles as the ditsy, lovable Ado Anne And, if you don’t know the difference between a ‘Persian Goodbye’ and an ‘Oklahoma Hello’, well, these three lovable characters will enlighten you.

The ensemble cast members are all uniformly excellent and their performances enhance and contribute greatly to the show’s success. The same can be said of the technical team: The exuberant choreography by Joel Ferrell incorporates both energetic and expressive movement; William Bloodgood’s scenic designs are a treat for the eye, from the expansive skies to the farmhouses, and particularly those massive trees with the dappled light on the leaves; Ann Wrightson’s evocative lighting, especially in the haunting dream sequence; Casi Pacifico provided the excellent sound which amplified the voices, while the orchestra, buried beneath the stage, sounded great never missing a beat or overwhelming the singers; and Jeff Cone lent authenticity to the period with the colorful gingham dresses and the cowboy gear. Director Chris Coleman keeps a firm hand of the pulse of the play. It never lags. The scenes effortlessly transition; the pacing brisk while flowing in a steady current.

Richard Rogers, in his autobiography Musical Stages, when asked to explain the extraordinary success of Oklahoma! wrote: “When a show works perfectly, it’s because all the individual parts complement each other and fit together. No single element overshadows any other; That’s what made Oklahoma! work. All the components dovetailed.

The success of this production is the result of all the individual parts fitting together and complementing one another. Portland Center Stage has once again provided a rich, rewarding, and thoroughly entertaining evening of musical theater.