What kind of protagonist goes around suggesting people commit suicide? What kind of love story ends in a murder trial? For a regular fixture of high-school stages, Rodgers and Hammerstein's first collaboration is a pretty bleak show. Its nominal hero, Curly, is a bully, and its female lead, Laurey, is a snob. Its big dance sequence is all menace. Its moral is that looking at dirty pictures leads to murder. Given the evidence—"Poor Jud Is Dead," the climactic flesh-auction and the townsfolk's blissful dismissal of Jud's death—one gets the impression that Oklahoma is not OK.
Of course, the show's a lot of fun, too, enough that two generations of drama teachers have decided that big crowd scenes, cowboy hats and "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" are worth talking down any parents alarmed by Jud's porn collection and Ado Annie's inability to heed Nancy Reagan's advice. Hammerstein's book and lyrics are characteristically over-wordy but funny enough to make the very talky second act bearable.
Chris Coleman, in his production of the show at Portland Center Stage, very ably balances its dual personalities of darkness and delight. I had feared that Coleman's decision to cast only black actors meant we were in for an awkward concept production, but it turns out the director just wanted to work with incredibly talented performers who don't often get to sing Rodgers and Hammerstein's music. If color-blind casting is all it takes to get this kind of talent in Portland, then let's have more of it: Oklahoma! has the strongest cast of any musical yet produced at the Gerding.
Rodney Hicks is restless and brash as Curly, all pouty macho affectation. Joy Lynn Matthews-Jacobs makes a cheerfully frightening Aunt Eller and Jonathan Raviv is a delightfully skeezy Ali Hakim. Justin Lee Miller's Jud had me tearing up during "Lonely Room." The brightest light on stage, though, is Marisha Wallace, who brings contagious joy to the role of Ado Annie (and, for the first time I can recall, genuine romantic chemistry to a PCS musical). Her Annie can't say no, not because she's mentally disabled (as she's often portrayed), but because she overflows with feeling. She is sensual, generous and fun, completely free of cynicism. She could teach us all a thing or two.