Oklahoma! by Rodgers and Hammerstein
Presented by Waterfront Theatre School in association with A&M Productions

Where: Artscape Arena, Artscape Theatre Centre, D.F. Malan St, Foreshore, Cape Town
When: June 7-17, 2023
Bookings: Tickets R180 at Computicket
Booking link: https://tickets.computicket.com/event/oklahoma/7215574
Direction and design: Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer
Musical direction: Garth Tavares
Choreography: Genna and Jo Galloway  

Oklahoma! -the groundbreaking musical by Rogers and Hammerstein is being presented in the Artscape Arena, Cape Town, June 7-17, 2023, by the Waterfront Theatre School in association with A&M Productions [Abrahamse & Meyer Productions]. It is is a love story – a love triangle – the story of a farmer girl and her courtship by two rival suiters and is set in 1906, in Western Indian Territory, USA. This season in Cape Town, celebrates the 80th anniversary of the musical, which premiered in 1943. Marcel Meyer of A&M Productions, provides insights into this revival staging of this sentinel musical, performed by the talented students at the Waterfront Theatre School.

TheCapeRobyn: Have you kept the setting in Western Indian Territory at the turn of the previous century in the USA – with American accents etc?

Marcel Meyer:  In essence, yes, we have kept the setting and original period because it is so vital to the integrity of the story, but we wanted to deepen and explore our relationship with history. American writer James Baldwin brilliantly observed that “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” We were eager to interrogate how the past becomes the present and the present becomes the future. To achieve this, we decided to stage the magnificent ‘Overture.’ During the overture we see a group of young, contemporary Oklahomans embark on staging a parable of the foundation of their statehood. This, we hope, will contextualise for the audience, how the actions of our ancestors reverberate and resonate in our daily lives today many decades and centuries later and how our actions will impact on the lives of future generations.

TheCapeRobyn: Can you talk about what Oklahoma! pings for us in South Africa 2023? You say that “Oklahoma is also underpinned by the fear of the other that so often arises when groups of people are forced to interact with each other.” More on that, please?

Marcel Meyer:  Any great work of art always remains topical and relevant, and Oklahoma! is truly a great work of art. Although Oklahoma! was written eight decades ago and set in an even more distant past, the themes and concerns about community and ownership of land resonate strongly, especially within a contemporary South African context. A piece of theatre is a living breathing thing and should always reflect the time it is being created in, it is not static or frozen like a sculpture or celluloid, it’s vital and vibrant and must reflect the concern of the day and Oklahoma! does all this tenfold.  Theatre historian Ethan Mordden states that Oklahoma! is “about how Americans comprehend their destiny.” The patriotic optimism that Oklahoma! inspired in 1943 during the height of WWII has shifted in the wake of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter and the play now resonates these darker more disturbing themes of America’s unease with the other and the consequences of systemic racism. Likewise, the musical asks South Africans to interrogate our own relationship with our land – how united or divided we are as a community and who truly owns this land and who has the right to call it theirs. Like all great art, Oklahoma! offers no easy solutions or platitudes but rather offers audiences a rich and complex composition in many shades of grey.

TheCapeRobyn: Have you adapted or shortened the musical?

Marcel Meyer:  Not at all. Oklahoma! is a masterpiece. It is one of the most brilliantly constructed musicals of all time. Every word, every lyric and every note of music is seamlessly integrated into a compelling dramatic whole that takes the audience on an incredible journey that traverses the entire gamut of human emotion and relationships. As the old saying goes, if it isn’t broken don’t fix it. Our job as a creative team has been to guide this incredible company of young actors to navigate their way through this wonderfully complex and textured material so that they can take ownership of it and make it theirs and share it with love and passion with the audience.

TheCapeRobyn: Is A&M Productions responsible for the ‘look’, design, costumes- can you talk about that?

Marcel Meyer:  Yes, we are jointly directing and designing this production. We are very lucky to be staging this production in the Artscape Arena, a venue we have often worked in and a venue we love very much. It affords us the opportunity to bring an intimacy to this epic play – while giving it the space it needs to live and breathe to its fullest. The Arena is going to be transformed into an immersive, poetic landscape where this immense tale of love, land and loss can unfold. The design concept explores the push and pull between the dream-state and the harsher realities of our waking hours, the conflict between the poetic and the prosaic – all of which are interrogated so thoroughly in the text. Realistic farm implements will exist in an abstracted poetic surrounding – a mutable and fluid space where one scene can seamlessly dissolve into the next – allowing for an ambivalent relationship between the past and the present.

TheCapeRobyn: Oklahoma is considered as one of the first book musicals – seamless integration of song and dance so it is obviously a wonderful teaching project?

Marcel Meyer:  It’s an incredible piece to do with young actors because both the score and libretto make great demands of young performers. It requires brilliant actors, singers, and dancers to do this superb piece of writing justice. Because Rodgers and Hammerstein so brilliantly achieved an integration of all the elements of musical theatre: song, dance and story with Oklahoma! it is imperative for the performers to always think like actors irrespective of whether they’re singing, dancing or speaking and it has been an absolute joy exploring this play with this dedicated young company of triple threats.

TheCapeRobyn: Your company, Abrahamse & Meyer Productions, always innovates. What can audiences expect from this staging – your multi award winning company – working with young students of musical theatre at the Waterfront Theatre School? I am thinking that it is not the usual swashbuckling Oklahoma?

Marcel Meyer:  Oklahoma! is a young people’s play – almost all the characters in the musical are either in their late teens or early twenties. This is a major reason why Abrahamse & Meyer Productions and The Waterfront Theatre School pursued this collaboration. Collectively we wanted to present this iconic musical with a truly age-appropriate cast in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the original Broadway production. We also wanted to share the genius Rodgers and Hammerstein with the next generation of theatre practitioners and audiences. The youthful passion this cast brings to the material re-invigorates and revitalizes this seminal piece in the musical theatre canon in an inspiring and refreshing way. It allows us to see a familiar piece from a fresh and vibrant perspective. This is totally aligned to our company’s mission of bringing innovative stagings of great classics texts to contemporary audiences in the Mother City. It’s one of the greatest masterpieces in the repertoire and each day in rehearsals has been a reminder of the genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein – I’m sure people will be pleasantly surprised when they see this production.

TheCapeRobyn: Dance – choreography is by Genna and Jo Galloway. Insights into the dance and movement?

Marcel Meyer:  Part of what made the original 1943 production of Oklahoma! so ground-breaking was the way dance was used as a major tool for furthering the plot and deepening our understanding of the characters in the play. Dance had featured, sometimes quite prominently in musicals before Oklahoma! but it was the seamless integration of the dances by Agnes De Mille into the dramatic fibre of the plot that made the use in dance in Oklahoma! so revolutionary. The groundwork laid by De Mille in Oklahoma! would pave the way for subsequent choreographers like Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, and Michael Bennet to further extend and expand the possibilities of dance in musicals like West Side Story, Chicago and A Chorus Line. Jo and Genna Galloway have done a brilliant job in creating the dances for the production. They have managed to, in equal parts pay homage to the style and integrity of Agnes De Mille’s original vision, while fresh-minting it for a contemporary audience.

TheCapeRobyn: Musical direction by Garth Tavares- insights?

Marcel Meyer:  Oklahoma! is one of the most iconic Broadway musicals and the lush score by Rodgers and Hammerstein is filled to the brim with songs that have been firm favourites for eight decades now: “Oh What A Beautiful Morning”, “People Will Say We’re In Love” and the rousing title song are just a few of these iconic show tunes. Garth Tavares has done a fine job in inspiring each of the young singers in the company to bring this monumental score to truly effervescent life. One would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the brilliance of Mr Rodgers’ music and Mr Hammerstein’s heartfelt and meaningful lyrics, sung with the vigour and the passion that this young company bring to this score.

Staging Oklahoma! in South Africa 2023: “… The musical asks South Africans to interrogate our own relationship with our land – how united or divided we are as a community and who truly owns this land and who has the right to call it theirs. Like all great art, Oklahoma! offers no easy solutions or platitudes but rather offers audiences a rich and complex composition in many shades of grey,”, reflects Marcel Meyer of A&M Productions [Abrahamse & Meyer Productions]. Oklahoma! is being presented by The Waterfront Theatre School A&M Productions, June 7-17, 2023 in the Artscape Arena.