Arts & Culture » Theater

Homosexual 'Oklahoma!' wows in Oregon

by Jim Gladstone

"Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry." Curly (Tatiana Wechsler, right) tries to entice Laurey (Royer Bockus) into accompanying her to the box social. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival
"Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry." Curly (Tatiana Wechsler, right) tries to entice Laurey (Royer Bockus) into accompanying her to the box social. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival  

Raise your curtains of preconception and imagine a musical: There's a spunky, sexually adventurous gay boy pursued by a hardworking man, a few years older, who wants to tame the young-un's wandering eye and get domestic.

There's a sheltered, uncomfortably ambiguous girl torn between the attentions of a slow-burning hunk and a worldly woman.

The voice of wisdom belongs to an elderly transgender aunt.

Is this the latest work from the creators of "Hedwig?" An acting maxi-challenge on "Drag Race?" The fever dream of a progressive millennial show queen?

In fact, it's the groundbreaking 75th anniversary production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" playing through October at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland, one of the largest and most widely acclaimed nonprofit theater companies in the U.S., and just a five-hour drive from San Francisco. (Direct flights from SFO to nearby Medford, OR are also an option.)

Having grown phenomenally since its founding in 1935, OSF's second and third initials can create confusion today. As evidenced by "Oklahoma!," the works of the Bard represent just a fraction of its productions. And with the exception of November through January, it runs all year long, which has transformed Ashland, a town of 20,000, into an artsy, foodie, queer-embracing oasis in conservative rural Oregon.

For gay theater-lovers, OSF's "Oklahoma!" is a destination event. The acting and production quality are as high as you can find on Broadway. And director Bill Rauch's vision is ingenious; in changing the genders of the lead characters, he simultaneously gives this classic/chestnut a thrilling jolt of freshness, and reveals the essential timelessness of the original.

If you're familiar with "Oklahoma!" from the 1955 film or a school or community theater production, you'll remember the flirty, comic role of Ado Annie. Well, Ado Andy is male now.

Curly, the cowpoke who pines for Laurey, is a woman. Aunt Eller is trans.

Ado Andy (Jonathan Luke Stevens, left) and Will Parker (Jordan Barbour). Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival  

And in what's long seemed like the whitest of white-bread musicals, both Curly and Will, Andy's suitor, are African American.

But except for the occasional shift of a "he" to a "she," or "girl" to "boy" and vice versa, the original script and song lyrics of the songs haven't been changed.

A gay man, director Rauch - who, since 2007, has also been Artistic Director of OSF in its entirety - has long been attracted to the idea of mounting the old-fashioned "Oklahoma!" in a new-fangled way. Musing over the idea, he kept discovering new angles to support it:

Lynn Riggs, the playwright of "Green Grow the Lilacs," which "Oklahoma!" was based on, identified as gay. Riggs was also part Cherokee. Despite the imagery presented in productions of "Oklahoma!" the musical, the 1906 Oklahoma territory had a population that included more Native and African Americans than whites. It made perfect sense for Rauch's production to be diverse racially as well as sexually.

To Rauch's surprise, when he finally submitted a proposal a couple of years ago, it was approved by the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate.

"Oklahoma!," Rauch notes, "is considered the grandparent of all musical comedy, for the way it integrates song and dance into the story." But like many grandparents, it's a bit out of touch with younger generations.

At a recent weekday matinee performance, several large high school groups were in attendance. They welcomed characters' climactic embraces with approving "aaawwwws" and spontaneous applause. Many of these students had never seen "Oklahoma!" before. Perhaps someday they'll attend a gender-bent straight version.

For queer audience members, there are lines in Oscar Hammerstein's original script and lyrics that take on amusing new shades of meaning when delivered among characters now portrayed as gay or lesbian:

Here's Andy's Pa, blessing his son's marriage to Will: "Take keer of her, son. Take keer of my little rosebud."

Or Curly, aggressively tooting her own horn: "Who's the best bull-dogger in 17 counties? Me, that's who! And looky here, I'm handsome, ain't I?"

And when "I Cain't Say No" is sung by a man, the already humorous lyrics get funnier: "S'posin that he says that you're sweeter than cream?/And he's gotta have cream or die?"

But those occasional bits of winking humor just add a little extra sizzle to what's really at stake in this production. Among the most stirring moments in any "Oklahoma!" are the musical declarations of love. At OSF, it feels at once beautifully classic and utterly groundbreaking when Will gives Andy his "All or Nothing" ultimatum, and when Curly and Laurey croon "People Will Say We're in Love." As presented by Bill Rauch and OSF, these indelible old melodies become catalysts for new ways of thinking.

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