Intermission Talk

Don’t Let “Oklahoma!”

Drown in Earth’s “Ink


by Tony Vellela


Haven’t the three of us met somewhere or seen each other before?,  Separately, I’m quite sure,  more than likely, or some other somewhere ?  Or somewhen before?  And in the visual parlance of one of the playscripts, a prominent ‘W?’

It begins to come back.  The ‘where’ – there were two – would have been thousands of miles apart – across ‘the big pond,’ as they used to pass off as sophisticated faux pas ‘slips of the tongues.’

The ‘whens’ were rather unknowingly incongruous.   They were set  on differing ends of a continent and a half – the 1980s.  Jonny Lee Miller, you were on telly and in a popular  Britcom called ‘Keeping Up Appearances.’    While [sort of]  the ever beloved Mary Testa was pulling it off [may that turn of phrase be used?] in the beloved off-Broadway musical piece called “In Trousers,” written, with score by William Finn.  Although the work was big distances apart both in length and stage presence [my favorite discovery of each of them was, for me,  Mary, as a memorable charwoman, while Jonny’s first was as Patricia Routledge’s  wordless boy toy.  Jonny appeared in a dialogue-less turn in William Graham’s “Keeping Up Appearances.”  Anyone with a keen eye could spot talent as it was, and still is.].

As many are fond of saying, last things first.  The current  revival of “Oklahoma!,” at Circle in the Square,  based on the Bard Summerscape Production  of the [last summer’s]  2018 version, based on the music of Richard Rodgers and the book and lyrics by writing partner Oscar Hammerstein II, was given its personal directorial style [at intermission, they even serve free chili in styrofoam cups!, by Daniel Fish.  Sheathe your hatchets.   There is very little that one would call sheath-worthy on display.

First, and as they also say, foremost, is Mary Testa.  Perhaps it was the aroma of the stewing chili being prepped for the free intermission doling [in styroform cups].  But how it came to pass that Aunt Eller became the sole and only inheritor of such a bountiful spread of cornfields passed right by.  As did the fact that her only niece  Laurey winds up residing in that remote, rather safe-seeming site.  Only other human person on the grounds is Jud Fry, an itinerant of sorts, going where the work needs him.

It is Aunt Eller’s singing voice we hear at first, extolling  this year’s successful corn crop [“. . . corn is as high as a elephant’s eye. . . “].  And among the  noteworthy elements of this American-import playing first in London during WWII was the voice, and then the sight and sound of a middle-aged woman, sitting on her front porch, all alone, churning butter.  American musicals were meant to be big brassy contraptions, all tap shoes, bright scenery drops and enough pretty dames to populate half the seats in the orchestra session, and every one of those  laps.

Gone.  Ev’ry bloomin’ Big Apple chorus cliche will open this ‘American musical,’ meant to give these ‘over-theres’ some taste of home that’s managed to get over.

Or has it?  American audiences, from the 1940s on down have come to identify the musical classic for what it has become , like Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” a somewhat fantastical recollection of their farm life or small town dusty-road street.  And just like Wilder’s brilliant refusal, ultimately, to turn that red balloon in the sky into the sun that will always go down, this, too, is slightly but easily visible to the attentive eye.

Eller’s cornfields look downright mouth-waterin’ to them cowboys’ cows.  And before you can whistle Mason and Dixon, [this here property tagged Oklahoma is just a territory, part of that missed meetings of the minds that has yet to have a statehood status settled, even if it means war].

There’s this hard-nosed, two-fisted, long-standing feud  between the settlers [read ‘farmers] and  the cowhands [read ‘cowboys who need grazing land wherever it shows up to keep those chows fed].  As feuds go, this is a dandy. because it’s local.  Whomever bids highest on Laurey’s famous good-eatin’ pie gets to escort her home and maybe such some.  Jud launched the gambling, but had to drop out when another of Laurey’s suitors starts upp-ing the bid.   The feverish almost child’s play gambling [who’s is bigger] ends up Curly bidding, and losing his horse, his saddle and his gun.

It’s a grand epic sweep of a fable, based originally on the Lynn Riggs play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” – Edna Ferber, where are you? – and then “Lilacs” was musicalized by Rodgers and Hammerstein.  Like many works deemed classics, “Oklahoma!” has earned the accolade for its longevity and spirit.

On to THIS production.  Given the reversal of trends nowadays, stage directors are again able to exert ‘creative control’ over what an audience experiences, be it cross-dressed central characters or runaway wolves chasing – what? whom? – in a recent production of Arthur Miller’s searing piece “The Crucible?”  Usta be, in theatre, that what was on the page is what’s on the stage.  Pretty much gone.

Not always bad, though.  The versatile, anchor-character of  this piece is not the young soon-to-be lovers or the second-banana twosome who get a plentiful and a half of the funny moments, or even poor Jud, the villainous handyman who is holed up in the make-do tool shed down below.

Aunt Eller [Mary Testa] needs a man’s assistance running the place, and Jud can do, make, put together or take apart most anything, except that one thing his hands can’t ever touch – Eller’s pretty, young, virtuous niece.  But some bad history behind him from another job, Jud has.

But in true R & H fashion, Jud and that rangy, well-liked but mostly unemployed Curly are doomed for each other.  After a rollicking good time at the town picnic where pies are auctioned off to help build a new school house, and guys take to tap-style dancing on the long wooden tables, Curly and Rod see less than eye-to-eye and trouble ensues via guns.  And this meant on the happy couple’s  wedding night.

Well, Jud winds up dead, Curly’s guilty hands are all over the place, and then Eller proposes to wait a day ’til the region’s minister of justice agrees, the cowboys and the milkmen all become friends.  Eller, you see, has fake news goods on the presiding magistrate ’til tomorrow, long after the train’s gone.  Cue, “Oklahoma!”

And don’t – do NOT forget that this piece has some of the most carefully-crafted, all-genre, easily transferrable tunes ever to resonate up and down Tin Pan Alley, such as “Surrey with the Fringe of the Top,” “I’m Justa Girl Who Can’t Say No,” “Poor Jud,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” and many more, which are now classics in many fields, such as jazz, country, Broadway, solo versions, etc. etc.  The ‘Can’t Say No’ club [Annie’s likely to be president]  puts her at the very top of any man’s hormones tending, and any good musician’s playlist.

Mercifully, as ‘they’ say, every cow must have a silver lining,  At least this middle-aged species of the bovine animal kingdom has but one, only one.  And this one even jumps over the moon.  Even though these three-quarters of a century has passed, it’s still faintly possible to hear that esteemed ground-breaking choreographer Agnes de Mille a faint squirm, a barely audible twist in that musty old coffin of hers.  Because, you see, Ms. de Mille is still heralded as one of dance’s queen bees, the one whom all the others mimic with assiduous fervor, lest the whole colony lose its way.  Experimenting with iconic movement can offer new perspectives, bold and often enlightening interpretations.  Ms. de Mille’s dance sequence, showing us how this near wayward, perversion-tempted chorine is genuinely torn between life’s good and evil, righteous yet close to seduction young woman [think of what happened to Julie in ‘Carousel’].  Billed as Lead Dancer, clearly talented Gabrielle Hamilton’s body language, scoots, scrapes and wall-huggings do not a bit to express Laurey’s anguish, even in a fantasy.  Her fifteen minute-plus gyrations give us nothing more than a steamy selection of mid nineteenth century gyrations.  This Act Two opening segment nearly  strangles the core of this revered piece.

Even during the elephant’s eye height of the sun, outstanding performances shine very brightly indeed.  Hard to locate a better-suited young woman than Rebecca Naomi Jones to capture the  ‘ will I – don’t I’  quandary of a late teen-aged girl during that isolated confusing state of mind, in this desolate place; Ali Stroker’s ready-to-bust exuberance of the aforementioned Ado Annie gives her an unexpected, very well-received couple of numbers;   and her on-again off-again beau Jim provides  James Davis that same untrained ambivalence mixed with the energy of hormones busting and a generous portion of downright dumbness to make a woman like Annie go nuts – and she almost does.  Her rendition of “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No” nearly explodes with  effervescence.

But the two leads in this big-cast  old-style feast of music and nostalgia, and in this production, they do so very well indeed.   Jones, as previously well-noted, combines the just-off-the-train-from-the-east with the steady-enough hand to give a pistol a solid home to play in.

But it’s Damon Daunno’s Curly who gives credence to the male lead role.  This is a character who knows when and how to shoot a gun [almost never] and how to give it all he’s got strumming a purdy love-like song.  This is the wild west version of the knight in shining armor, or more aptly, the very good night who wakes up next to you ready to give a meaningful warning shot to a territory buster, as he is to chow down two slabs of bacon, a dozen eggs and that third cup of coffee.


Even before Rupert Murdoch [Bertie Carvel] gets in his first hunch over the breakfast-as-meeting meal, he’s hooked former college classmate Larry Lamb [Jonny Lee Miller] onto the fantasy dream of buying, then transforming Fleet Street’s losingest paper into a mass market behemoth.  The scheme, lure so many of the has-beens and also-rans from previous  rags, and give them the chance they’ve been fantasizing about all these many bygone years, when television became the news source of choice.  No pages of ads to clutter, near borderline salacious ‘coverage’ of ‘the news,’ and all manner of copy that would have you believe it’s all honest-to-God true.

Murdoch’s brainchild – and that it is – would NOT put another paper in competition, but create a new kind of competitor.  Murdoch sees a craving for fast-paced, minimal facts coverage of the news of the day, with the remaining ‘real estate’ used for other purposes, i.e. nearly illegal ‘Page Three’ girls [and by girls he meant girls] wearing, or almost wearing swimming suits that barely qualify to be called that.

Differences arise, mostly due to the two men’s divergent views on what their paper – the Sun – should be covering, or uncovering, as it were.  This is not a mere business ‘creative differences’ tale,  It says, on one hand, stick with the good old hold ’em ’til you fold ’em gamble gambit [the old way] versus branch out, conquer unchartered territory.  The new territory, their arch enemy – television.  First, get a foot in that door, then never pull it out like it’s your office and you are the boss.  And stay there until you are.

Times change.  They assuredly do.  But the way people get their news also changes.  Hurry, hurry, scurry.  Less ‘news,’ and more non-news.  Call it by its real name=filler.  And boy could Mr. Lamb fill those pages.  Astrology is now news.  Crossword games are now news.   Twiggy =types wearing barely enough fabric fashioned to keep a porno squad busy.   Even what the Queen wears, including the contents of those ubiquitous, color-coded  handbags serious state papers and such, might contain.

So Act One jives along, complete with a conga line and pop era tunes.  You know – fun.  Isn’t that what ‘news’ should be – not gloom and doom, war and bloodiness, but tenth grade reading level fun.

Along comes Larry Lamb [Miller], eager to take some kind of mid-thirties flyer that may sound a little risky, but . . . what the hell.  They’re British, after all.  The chance-takers from way back.  Miller accepts Murdoch’s plan, takes some of their mutual money, and jointly buy the low-rent news rag colleagues laugh at.

About face!  Miller re-imagines a new-type newspaper.  Those formerly-called scantily clad barely out of their teens girl-women eating up a third of the front page.  Inside, news of the city, country and world – at least as much as will fit.

And then, as in any good guy-bad guy-worse guy saga, a Third Act surfaces, because Miller is crazy like a Fox.  It’s the telly, not the pages, that pull in those buyers.

You may have already deduced a variety of endings.  None of us knows for certain the almost real-life Hansel and Gretel ending – who actually comes tumbling down.  Hopes, and stakes, run high.


TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the award-winning “Admissions” at the New York International Fringe Festival, produced three times off-Broadway directed by Austin Pendleton.  His play ” Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge.  He’s written three books, and numerous performing arts features for, among others, The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics, Parade, The Whole Earth Catalog, Pageant, Life and many others.   He has taught theatre-related topics at several venues, including HB Studios, the 92nd St. Y, Columbia University, and elsewhere.  He now conducts private mentoring and auditions-related from home,


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