Contributing Denver Critic
When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein created the “Mother of the Modern Musical,” Oklahoma! in 1943, America was at war. The idyllic Oklahoma countryside, coupled with the true example of the American Dream- the settlements resulting from the Great American Land Rush, gave audiences a version of America to cheer for during a dark and troubled time. America was fighting a war on two fronts, having been attacked on American soil just two years prior. What a joy, and a relief it must have been to see such unabashed optimism in the American experience.
What Rodgers and Hammerstein likely didn’t account for, was what the turn of the century’s land grab movement meant for the post Civil War, freedmen and women of color. I’ll admit, I’d never really taken much time to consider it before now, and certainly had never heard of the 50 all black towns settled in Oklahoma during that period of our nation’s history. These towns were settled for many reasons I’m sure, but the predominant one is the bright promise for folks to live their lives free of the systemic discrimination thriving in America’s south and the Midwest. These towns had their place in Oklahoma but ultimately were forgotten about post-statehood. One might think that the creation of such places would help create within the state a welcoming environment to all people of color, but sadly this isn’t the case. Oklahoma is, like the rest of America, still grappling with systemic racism. We live in a time of protest and movements, where people take to the streets to demonstrate the injustices facing the good men and women of our country. With that in mind, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Oklahoma! is both timely and necessary.
Walking into the Stage Theatre, its thrust stage is set with sepia-toned colors-an old Claremore newspaper the backdrop, massive, rustic, wooden beams the frame. Upon closer inspection, the beams are accented with thick, corroded chains-and when taken in all together; it isn’t a stretch to think of other chains, turned orange by salt from ocean water, wrapped around ship beams that carried the souls of millions of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas generations ago. (Some of whom are likely the ancestors of the performers taking the stage in this production.) The rest of the set is equally as gritty-the cabin set with its rustic benches and tables are meant to show us its inhabitants worked the land.
But despite its grit and the long-forgotten history referenced in this production, Oklahoma! is nothing if meant to be bright and shiny, and that is precisely what the performers bring to the stage. The optimism of a new day ringing clearly in the opening lines of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” through to the very end of the show. There is no need to make any more references to the history of the 50 all black towns in Oklahoma, because frankly, watching this cast sing the classic songs written by Rodgers and Hammerstein does the trick: This must be what it would’ve been like for newly freed men and women of color to work and live without fear of oppression, free to enjoy the life they worked hard for on those homesteads.
The cast shines brightly and gives an honest, exuberant performance. Since it is set on a thrust stage, the audience is quite close, so even the smallest of errors are noticed. Happily, apart from a few torn hems, there isn’t much more to be said of that. With an audience on three sides of the performers, it is more difficult to stage any show- and while the entire stage is used well- from the two front exits stage left and stage right, to the trap door rising in the middle of the stage to create Jud’s smokehouse, much of the action is still played front and center. Truthfully though, it’s difficult to be that upset when you’re so close to the action-a larger than life musical coupled with the sheer talent of the cast is almost overwhelming in the space-but in the best possible way.
The cast is led by the inimitable Antoine L. Smith as Curly, whose long list of credits include the most recent Broadway revival of The Color Purple, Miss Saigon, and most recently Carousel. His rich, vibrant voice breezes through the classic score and melts the audience. When he opens his mouth, you simply cannot look away. He is matched well with Ta’Nika Gibson’s Laurey. Her voice harkens back to those classic soprano voices Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for. If Smith and Gibson set the bar, the rest of the cast meets it: The sound of the ensemble is rich and full-just what you’d anticipate when seeing Oklahoma!
Choreographer Dominique Kelley delivered a modern take to this tried and true classic: the LaLa Land Dancer added stomp-like rhythms and some old ragtime taps, but where the choreography really soars is during the dream sequence: Raven McRae Traoré simply floats and flies as Dream Laurey-and while the whole sequence is stunning, she truly is the star. Dominique has been quoted as saying of this production, “ I would love to show that brown people have legs and feet and can twirl.” He accomplished this with flying colors-his job likely made infinitely more easy by the talented dancers in the cast: Rennie Anthony McGee (who plays Will Parker) spins and leaps as if gravity doesn’t exist, and he’s not the only one.
Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ production of Oklahoma! triumphs. A timely piece not only because of the forgotten history it references but also because of the bright optimism shining through every lyric and 8 counts. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a musical that fits the time it was written in as well as it does today: For what better message can we experience in these troubled times than one of an America to root for and believe in, if only for 2 hours and 35 minutes? I can think of none.