Musicals are like retroviruses. Long after the stories have faded, the music clings, changing your cells from the inside, appearing in unlikely places. “Begin the Beguine,” from the otherwise-forgotten 1935 Jubilee. “Tea for Two” from No, No, Nanette, as common as a cold and as poorly understood. “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” being used to flog shampoo decades after it was written for South Pacific. And then there’s Oklahoma!, the vector for “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” infection, now playing in a highly polished form at Hayward’s Douglas Morrison Theatre. Oklahoma! is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s proof that no matter how wafer-thin and timeworn a plot, if a show’s music’s has hooks, people will come.
The plot, while rather dark for a musical romance, is kept simple and out of the way of the singing and dancing. Laurey and Curly bicker and snipe at each other constantly. She calls him a “braggin’, bowlegged, wish-he-had-a-sweetheart bum.” He calls her a “damn she-mule.” It must be love. Meanwhile, brooding hired hand Jud has his eye on Laurey, who tries to use him to get at Curly, setting in motion a scary sequence of events. And while Jud is out scheming in the smokehouse and Laurey and Curly are making eyes at each other over the hay bales, boy-crazy Ado Annie is trying to decide between two beaus. There’s also some brief second-act static between ranchers and farmers, but it seems like an afterthought. That’s it; that’s the plot.
When it first opened, Oklahoma! was revolutionary. It was probably the first unapologetically American musical, set on the frontier and featuring ordinary people instead of counts and princesses. It had wonderful choreography by Martha Graham’s contemporary and friend Agnes DeMille. But it’s shopworn now, and while the music and spirit is still charming, some of the choices are painfully outdated, especially the presentation of Jud as a one-sided monster and the peddler Ali Hakim as a generic shifty furr’ner. This simplistic characterization may have worked for 1943 audiences. It may even have been integral to the American wartime gestalt with its clearly delineated right and wrong. But it falls flat today.
The night I went, when Curly suggested to Jud (none too subtly) that the latter man kill himself, the audience was distinctly uneasy. Jess Martinez as Jud does his best to fight the text, offering a welcome dimension of vulnerability and pain to the character, but it’s an uphill battle. As for Ali Hakim, whose name is repeatedly mispronounced “Alley Hackem” (cute the first time, and only the first time) — while US bombs rain down on Iraq, do we really need to see a Persian character portrayed as a simpering, sleazy coward? Although it’s hard to tell whether Patrick Sanchez’ Hakim is in fact Persian, as Sanchez hams his way through Oklahoma! using pretty much the same accent and eyebrow-dancing he relied upon as a Hispanic detective in last year’s City of Angels at the Masquers Playhouse.
But who needs character subtleties when there’s rousing singing to live orchestral accompaniment, guys wrestling, and dancing? Faith Blevins does a great job with the choreography — the barn dance alone must have kept her up nights, but it comes off beautifully, as do the big-skirt fiesta of “Many a New Day” and the dream sequence, with its sexually menacing cancan dancers. It’s hard to hear James Leonard Koponen’s Will Parker over the orchestra, but he makes it up on the dancing; given the most complicated and acrobatic tasks of the cast, he does flips and jigs and an impressive two-woman lift.
In difficult times, audiences certainly need pleasant distractions. Oklahoma! is that — but, sadly, nothing more. It would be nice to see this kind of talent and energy put into a production with more to say to today’s audience.