Recent Productions

Oklahoma!

directed by Robert Cohen, with Donald McKayle, choreographer; Dennis Castellano, musical director

This was a reconsidered production of the famous musical, drawing heavily from the source play, Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs, and the director’s notion that Oklahoma! was in large measure a serious American folk opera. Jud’s aria, not often performed, became a centerpiece and, with the permission of the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate, the ballet dispensed with the “dream Laurey” and “dream Curly” in place of the actual Laurey dancing with a bull (representing Jud) and a stallion (representing Curly).

Review Excerpts

UCI’S ‘OKLAHOMA!’ A WORK OF ART. …No musty museum piece[but] an Oklahoma! with the dust blown off, the cobwebs removed and the full panorama of story and score brought out in the open, a great achievement… a work of art in all its full and proper glory.” —Irvine World News

“Wildly entertaining with beautiful musical numbers and dancing, that will keep the audience either completely on the edge of their seats or on the floor with teary-eyed, stomach-aching laughter.” —New University

“A CHARMING, BUOYANT AND REFRESHING REVIVAL. Cohen finds much social import in the work…[but] fortunately directs the production as just what it is – a joyous, grand musical. Cohen’s staging is marvelous, full of vaudeville shtick and ripe with larger-than-life performances. There is a naiveté about these characters that doesn’t exist in America or anywhere else today and was a great morale booster in 1943. That feeling is still refreshing in our own dark world, and Cohen and McKayle capture it beautifully. In Cohen’s brisk tempos, and through Dennis Castellano’s delicious Broadway pitband musical direction, the proceedings breathe with crackling life.” —Los Angeles Times

“This UCI staging proved once and for all that Rodgers & Hammerstein’s groundbreaking 1943 show is the great American musical.” —Orange County Register

“A vibrant version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s darkly hued American Musical.” “Okie” Award, year-end wrap-up, —OC Weekly

Director’s program note

I wonder if it’s wholly irrelevant that the stressed syllable of “Oklahoma” – a syllable that, in the title song of our show, also carries the highest and longest note – is “home.” Would we have so embraced this song – or the musical it titles – for fifty years if it were about “West VirGIIIIIN-ya?” Or “CaliFOOOOORN-ya?” I don’t think so. There’s certainly something homespun about Oklahoma! And homely too, perhaps. But there’s also, in it, a strong resonance of an our American HOME, and the planting of American roots.

I have called Oklahoma! America’s national opera. Its stature can hardly be in question: the American Drama League, earlier this year, ranked Oklahoma! as the most important musical theatre work of the century. Oklahoma! inaugurated not only the legendary collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, The Sound of Music), but also what we now call the “golden age” of American musicals that filled U.S. theatres for an entire generation – up through Fiddler on the Roof by most accounts – and continues to fill them in modern revivals from Broadway to Capetown to Tokyo and beyond. And Oklahoma’s near-seamless integration of serious drama (from Lynn Rigg’s Green Grow the Lilacs, the source play), serious ballet (in the original choreographic notions of Agnes de Mille) and the singing and dancing of established musical comedy created a theatrical form that remains America’s greatest contribution to world drama.

And yet my own admiration for Oklahoma! extends far beyond its soaring score, heartfelt lyrics, and formal innovations. First, to its true progenitor, the nearly-forgotten Lynn Riggs, whose centennial we celebrate this year. While still in his twenties, Riggs was ranked with Eugene O’Neill, particularly for his rough-textured regional realism: “In Lynn Riggs our American theatre has found a poet who can bring to it an authentic note of ecstasy and passion,” claimed an esteemed critic. It is to Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs (1931) that we owe the entire story, all the characters (save Will Parker), and almost all of the spoken dialogue of Oklahoma! Even fragments of Rigg’s stage directions found their way into Hammerstein’s lyrics: “Mr. Riggs’ play is the wellspring of almost all that is good in Oklahoma!” Hammerstein admitted. “I kept most of the lines of the original play without making any changes in them for the simple reason that they could not be improved upon.”

Detesting Broadway’s conventions, Riggs sought to create, as he put it, “a kind of truth about people who happen to be living in Oklahoma…. They are voiceless, tongueless. Gamblers, traders, vagabonds, adventurers, daredevils, fools. Men disdainful of the settled, the admired, the regular ways of life. Men on the move. Men fleeing from a critical world and their own eyes. Pioneers, eaten people.” When we look beyond the jollity of Oklahoma!’s merrier moments, we can see the hardworking, hardliving, and often agonizing rural life (“eaten people!”) of territorial America.

But there was more than merriment on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s minds as well, certainly in 1942-43 when Oklahoma! was first written and put into production. These were, of course, the darkest years of World War II and the Nazi holocaust: to most Jews of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s (and my own parents’) generation, America was a promised land. For many of them, frankly, it was THE promised land. To be able to sing “We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand,” was hardly a given fact for many people, and many peoples, in 1943. Sadly, it is hardly a given fact in many parts of the world today.

Oklahoma territory was settled in a free-for-all land rush, and Oklahoma! is a musical drama about the assimilation of its settlers into a collective statehood and brotherhood. “The farmer and the cowboy should be friends,” sings Aunt Eller, if the American dream is to succeed. But in a somewhat overlooked lyric, Ike adds this phrase:

“And when this territory is a state
And j’ines the union just like all the others,
The farmer and the cowman and the merchant
Must all behave theirsel’s and act like brothers.”

We were not all farmers and cowboys, even in Oklahoma. Of course the “merchant” in this play is Ali Hakim. It’s the role that Lee Strasberg played in the original Riggs version and Joseph Buloff in the musical: both of them got their start in New York’s Yiddish theatre. Ali’s last name (which comes from the Yiddish “hacham” or “clever guy”) was, however, original to Hammerstein’s version, and Hammerstein himself jokingly portrayed the character privately at Oklahoma!’s first anniversary party as “Ali Hakimstein.” Ali Hakim represents a third petitioner for inclusion in the American dream. Twisted Jud Fry, in whose shadow we might possibly see a future Timothy McVeigh, represents a fourth. And there are many others, but, of course this is only a play.

Much as we all may go along with Ike’s advice that we “behave oursel’s and act like brothers,” the sad reality is that our differing interpretations of those counsels makes brotherhood problematical, at best, in much of the world today. Homilies won’t by themselves suffice. But theatrical engagement, and musical theatre in particular, can be an immensely powerful cultural force, precisely because it works on our unconscious minds, long lingering in our memories and dreams. Maybe that’s why, at this time in our lives, we – your directors, none of whose ancesters came to this country on the Mayflower – have thought to “come home” to Oklahoma this end-of-century season.

See: Andrea Most, “We Know We Belong to the Land” PMLA January 1998, and Phillis Cole Braunlich, Haunted by Home: the Life and Letters of Lynn Riggs, Oklahoma University Press, 1988.

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