Denver Center production highlights the state’s multi-racial history with all-African-American cast

Normally the kind of safe, well-known stalwart of a musical favored by high school drama departments, “Oklahoma!” may seem a curious choice as the directorial debut for new DCPA artistic director Chris Coleman. It’s the musical theater equivalent of a Chevy: a solid American ride no one will get overly excited about, but still able to fill seats 75 years after its Broadway debut.

It’d been quite some time since I’d seen “Oklahoma.” Since high school, in fact. As musicals go, I thought of “Oklahoma!” as a corny throwback of minimal interest to today’s theater-goer.

But then I heard this production directed by Coleman was a little different. The show itself sticks to the Rodgers & Hammerstein book and music, but with one major difference: an all- African-American cast.

Intriguing. With the exception of the Persian peddler character Ali Hakim (a wonderful Cooper Grodin), this 1906 “Oklahoma!” town is all black. Historically, this makes plenty of sense. In a study guide provided by the theater, it’s noted that there were some 50 all-black settlements in the state between the end of the Civil War and 1920. There was even talk of making Oklahoma an all-black state.

Oklahoma! dance

One of the high-energy dance numbers in the Denver Center’s new production of ‘Oklahoma!,’ choreographed by Dominique Kelley.

It’s no surprise that, with the white male perspective being the dominant one in most of our written history, the contributions of African-Americans (along with Native Americans and women) haven’t gotten much attention. And while this “Oklahoma!” doesn’t address it in the show itself, the casting alone makes for quite a statement. By taking this whitest of musicals and flipping it black, the show compels us to reconsider this time in history from another point of view.

That said, there’s zero chance that a musical about this era written by an African-American Rodgers & Hammerstein would look anything like “Oklahoma!” That non-existent “Blacklahoma!” would no doubt underscore the tremendous struggle of African-Americans in the wake of the Civil War, when being emancipated was only half the battle to true freedom in the face of extreme repression and overt – often violent – racism. In that show, a story of tormented lovers might serve more as comic relief than a main plot driver.

The story of “Oklahoma!”, as you may recall, consists solely of the budding romances between Laurey and Curley and Slim and Ado Annie. The main conflict comes in the form of Jud Fry – the odd man out in a love triangle with Laurey and Curley who doesn’t take his rejection well. Other than nods to the new territory and the need for the farmers and ranchers to get along in the interest of becoming a state, there’s precious little about the historic underpinnings of the era, nor much about the tremendous struggles any inhabitants of a frontier territory would face.

So if the original musical isn’t up to the task of depicting with any accuracy the dynamic racial situation of 1906 Oklahoma, does an all-black cast make up the difference? Not in the show itself, but the casting alone is a reclamation of sorts – a chance for African-Americans to take back a bit of history and call it their own. The paper-thin plot could be anyone’s story, romance being a universal concern, and African-Americans have as much right to it as anyone. With that in mind, seeing this old show in a new light makes for a truly enjoyable experience.

A stellar production

All that back story aside, this is one well-crafted production. Front and center is the choreography by Dominique Kelley, based on the original by Agnes de Mille. Kelley’s interpretation of the musical numbers is one of tremendous energy, high jumps, splits, and impeccable traffic management of a great many dancers moving at high speed. Unlike modern musicals, which may have up to 20 songs, “Oklahoma!” only has a handful, leaving room for extended versions of each with several “chapters” of dance contained within.

Costume designer Jeff Cone notes in the program a preference for more realistic colors – a “sepia-toned photograph” to reflect the hard lives the characters lived. This cast is hardly in need of bright clothing to breathe plenty of life into the material. Right out of the gate, Antoine L. Smith as Curly belts out a soaring “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” while Sheryl McCallum as Aunt Eller takes the wise older woman and cranks it up a notch with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Ta’Nika Gibson as Laurey shows off a voice as big as the Midwest, while also deploying a fierce withering look to keep Curly guessing her moods.

Everyone loves the Ado Annie character, and Bre Jackson doesn’t disappoint. As the chirpy, beautiful “girl who can’t say no,” Jackson delivers the laughs while unapologetically celebrating her femininity and sexuality. Keeping up with her as aspiring beau is Jason Daniel Rath as Slim, another big voice and talented dancer who’s a joy to watch.

Oklahoma Ado Annie

Bre Jackson as Ado Annie is wooed by Slim, Jason Daniel Rath.

The skunk at the garden party is Jud Fry, played as a true heavy by Barrington Lee. When he makes an entrance, you can feel the entire mood shift as Lee hauls Jud’s emotional baggage behind him and pursues his doomed-from-the-start wooing of Laurey. It’s an impressive performance, and one that the standing-O crowd recognized with enthusiasm when Lee took his bow.

Barrington Lee as Jud Fry

Coleman, who did the first all-African-American “Oklahoma!” at his former home at Portland Center Stage, makes a firm statement with this show. While showing off his directing chops managing such a big show, he’s also made an impressive statement in the heart of Denver’s theater scene. From wildly inventive new shows like “Vietgone” to classics like this one done with a twist, Coleman is pointing DCPA Theatre Company in some new directions.

I’m looking forward to the ride.