AT THE VERY LEAST, Portland Center Stage's current treatment of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! is an entertaining evening at the theater. The tale of small-town America in the early 1900s is told by an earnest and wildly talented cast and staged by the steady hand of PCS artistic director Chris Coleman. It has all the makings of a pristine, professional production: inspired technical treatment, sparkling choreography, and so forth. Does it, however, do anything to help us see the tale in a different light? Is it a "new" Oklahoma!?
Coleman has attempted to make it new by choosing to set the play in an African American town, a setting that Portland Center Stage's dramaturgical notes clearly explain is historically accurate. Oklahoma in the early 1900s was home to several black towns, many of which were self-sustaining, and in this way, the setting lends itself both to the story and characters in Oklahoma! The cowboy Curly (played by a thoughtful and charismatic Rodney Hicks) wants the love of Laurey (Brianna Horne), the lovable dunce Will Parker (Jarran Muse) wants to tame the overly flirtatious Ado Annie (Marisha Wallace), and everyone wants to carve out their slice of the American Way. The pursuit of love and autonomy are universal themes that just about anyone can relate to, and in this sense, Coleman's take on Oklahoma! rings true.
Where Coleman's choice becomes problematic, however, is in the story that isn't being told with the production. Race simply isn't a topic found in the original book that Hammerstein wrote for a 1940s Broadway audience, and Coleman hasn't found a way to tackle this topic in the current production. One has to imagine that discrimination was something very much on the mind of African Americans at the turn of the 20th century. Jim Crow laws were being upheld by the Supreme Court, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still decades away. The fact that this doesn't even come across as an undertone in PCS's production makes the credibility of Coleman's choice questionable.
That isn't to say that Oklahoma! is a waste of a production. On the surface, it's full of high-energy performances and lovable moments. At its heart, however, resides a puzzling, even troubling choice.