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    

It was wonderful to be at opening of the ambitious and impressive staging of Oklahoma! by The Waterfront Theatre School in association with Abrahamse and Meyer Productions [A&M Productions] in the Artscape Arena in Cape Town. The production is on until June 17, 2023. The college students are in fine form. Most of them nail the Oklahoma accent – singing and speaking. Stunning talent – triple threats- singing, dancing and acting. The characterization is outstanding. The dance is a wow. The design (beautiful drawings by Marcel Meyer) provides an evocative and shimmering background- against which the narrative plays out. This staging celebrates the 80th anniversary of the seminal musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, first staged in 1943, in America.

The musical was ground breaking in many ways – including its extensive book and its grappling with social/cultural/ideological/geographical issues in America and the American Dream- land and a lot more. The vibe in 1943 was full-on optimism – everything was going America’s way and it was all beautiful.

Oklahoma! was a trailblazer in its inclusion of the Dream Ballet at the end of Act 1 – evoking the complex feelings of Laurie the farm girl in relation to her suitors,  Curly (the all American entitled cowboy) and Jud (ranch hand/farm hand and outsider). The Dream Ballet was choreographed by Agnes De Mille – niece of Cecil B De Mille and was the first time that a major ballet was used in musicals, says Marcel Meyer of A&M Productions. Choreographers like Jerome Robbins (West Side Story) and Bob Fosse (Cabaret, Chicago) were hugely influenced by the Dream Ballet in Oklahoma. Jo Galloway and Genna Rowley have worked in the Agnes de Mille style, from her original ballet and created an extraordinary ballet – filled with urgency, angst and sexuality.

The Dream Ballet is one aspect of this innovative production which heightens the darkness and violence in the original book. This is an edgy production – with A&M Productions anchoring the gaze into Oklahoma! – through the lens of 2023- to reverberate now – very much in relation to the rot of the American Dream and in relation to what land, country, shared space means to all of us.

The ending – whoah (chillingly freaky)- positions this musical in relation to the dissolution of the American Dream, patriotism, idealism and the decaying of this world. The ending is set against the quivering refrains of the musical’s anthemic leitmotif of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s rousing, ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’. Curly may swagger and croon in the musical that ‘ev’rythin’s goin’ his way’ but whose way is it? Still, we sing on, find love and tough it out as we must.

This is not a fiddlesticks Oklahoma! It is a complex multi nuanced and layered staging– way beyond what one would expect from a college production, performed by musical theatre students. There is a lot to distil and process.

For instance- and here is a production spoiler- so stop reading if you don’t want to know more, before you see it but I found these insights from Meyer, useful so I am sharing them here. We see The Boy, dressed in a Country Road T-Shirt (yes as in the brand). He is the conduit between the past and present. Meyer: “He is their ‘guardian’ – conjuring the bygone world of his ancestors and conjuring up the stories and as the play progresses he is in story but he stays in his t-shirt even though everyone else in period costumes. The moment that Jud Fry gets killed, we have referenced that horrific death of George Floyd, where Curly is literally kneeling on his back – ‘I can’t breathe’ and the lights go to red and afterwards that the play lives in past and present at same time. You may have noticed that some of the ensemble come back in modern dress and some are in period costumes. There is a definite divide – the coloured and black community on the one side and the capped boys – the Trump supporters who along and say – ‘yes, we say it was self-defence- the white boy did nothing wrong’. It becomes “a statement on justice on America and the thin veneer on which that society is built. The Boy who has been this innocent boy who was reliving this fable of America is at the right the end of the play, the kid who obviously like so many other naïve American young kids is the boy who wants to go in and stop the riots or be shipped off to Korea or Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan … This play is very much how Americans see themselves and engage with what they are and what it meant in 1943, when they were in the middle of World War II and it was a play of optimism but it has shifted in the wake of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd and Trump and all the things that have happened in America. So it [Oklahoma] looks at itself in a different way- not that we have changed a word, line or music. It has always been there in the play but because the world has changed, what the play now means, I think has shifted and changed. So we wanted to try and find a metaphor for that. So the Boy who is the conjurer of the story is in the end, is pushed through the system of America and the military and will possibly die for an ideal- this ideal which is America. That is what we were hoping to symbolize with and it is unique to this production.”

Bravo to all – for this brave and bold staging and bravo to the Waterfront Theatre School Students for immersing themselves in the story and giving their all in this production which triggers much in terms of engaging with the past in order to navigate the present and hopefully a future.

Dreaming: Oklahoma! staged by The Waterfront Theatre School in Cape Town, in association with Abrahamse and Meyer Productions [A&M Productions] in the Artscape Arena, June 7-17, 2023.

Outstanding: Saskia Bormans L Michael Human R in Oklahoma! staged by The Waterfront Theatre School in Cape Town, in association with Abrahamse and Meyer Productions [A&M Productions] in the Artscape Arena, June 7-17, 2023.

✳ Images supplied.

Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn: https://thecaperobyn.co.za/interview-oklahoma-staged-in-cape-town-june-2023-re-invigorating-and-revitalizing-this-seminal-musical-with-a-young-and-energetic-cast/