TW: This response mentions suicide.
I’ve probably mentioned that one super fun thing I get to do is respond to college shows for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF). I enjoy traveling to these shows, talking with students about their work and their process, and getting a feel for the kind of work happening in college theater departments all over the region.
I ended up seeing Oklahoma! at Rider because I offered to see As You Like It at Arcadia University, and I asked if there was another show nearby that needed a response that weekend. I haven’t seen a production of Oklahoma! in probably 15 years, and I was 100% fine with that.
Well, I am here to say that, as usual, I was wrong. I definitely needed to see Oklahoma! again, and if every production was this strong, I would see it annually.
As musicals go, this production was super solid. The choreography was brilliant, technical, and cleanly executed. The pit orchestra sounded full and rich. The singing was as good as any I can remember hearing in any show, anywhere.
The costuming was exactly the way Oklahoma should look, with a sunny prairie palette, thick crinolines, and cowboy boots. The set was a bit more of a suggestion–rolling platforms that turned and reconfigured to represent different areas. This was a show that was, much like the westward expansion, on the move.
But that’s where the similarities between this show what I was expecting ended. This was an Oklahoma! that looked the show’s origins in the eye and took them on. The cast was multiracial, with Aunt Eller being played by an African American girl, and Laurie being Asian. There was some confusing work that I think was trying to undercut the racist stereotype of Ali Hakkam (I think he was supposed to be actually a New Yorker posing as a Middle Easterner? It wasn’t clear in its execution, but the intent was interesting).
The most striking moment of the whole thing, though, was the “Poor Judd Is Dead” scene. Curly, I should say, was played by a joyful young man who looked like he stepped out of a poster. He was a white kid with a bright smile, a chin dimple, and wide, sweet eyes. And here he is, suddenly trying to get Judd to hang himself, for his own convenience. Every other time I’ve seen this performed, it’s been played as a joke. We’re supposed to think it’s funny, right? In this production, although they left all of the text exactly as written, there was a brilliant acting moment when Judd joined Curly, harmonizing on the song. Curly’s face suddenly showed the realization that Judd might actually kill himself, that Judd has considered doing this before Curly ever got there. Curly is in so deep, he can’t stop it now, but he realizes that this was a very stupid idea. He becomes even… a little tender toward Judd. It’s hard to describe how this worked in the context of the song, but he started out with a fairly wicked plan and found himself loving and caring for Judd.
This earnestness was apparent in the final scene, too, where Curly and Laurie’s wedding is marred by Curly killing Judd, accidentally-ish, in defense of Laurie. Again, it wasn’t played as a joke, but as an event that shook this little community on the plains.
When I talked with the students later, they had all manner of interesting insights in response to my questions about how it feels to be doing a play in 2018, that was written in 1943, and set in 1909. All three time scales have to be present and in dialog with each other, and these students got it. The show was deeply realized, challenging, thought-provoking, and super fun. I hope to see more shows at Rider; they are doing some fantastic work.