"Oklahoma!" was the first Broadway show I ever saw, and at the age of six or seven I thought it wonderful beyond all telling. So beautiful, and yet so ordinary. The people on stage looked as if they might have stepped out of the family album, right off my great grandparents' farm. But the music was ravishing, and the homely costumes under the magical lights were a hundred times more vivid than the fading sepia of those old photographs. When Curly swaggered on to sing "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" to Aunt Eller, the performers radiated a sublime self confidence. They were in a show that began in 1943 as a risky experiment, a brash assertion that Americana could remake a European art form in its own image. By the time my grandma took me to see "Oklahoma!", Americans were convinced that Rogers and Hammerstein and DeMille and Mamoulian had made that boast good. The performers knew that their accomplishment was taken by the audience as a flattering mirror, further evidence of the genius of a democratic spirit that survived the Great Depression, triumphed in two World Wars, and would lead the Free World to a brighter future. Oklahoma, a state whose name had been reduced to a badge of shame when more fortunate localities scorned the dust bowl refugees as "Okies", had become a homestead for the whole triumphant nation, its name a mythic mantra: "Oklahoma! We know we belong to the land/and the land we belong to is grand!" I loved it, every minute of it. I felt somehow that I was part of it.
By the time that I was literally part of it, playing Ado Annie in a community theatre production twenty years later, the show's luster was a bit tarnished. "Oklahoma!" was still popular, all right: the show everybody knows, the show everybody has done. The music was still irresistible, but the self confidence and self discovery seemed to have leaked out of Hammerstein's book like so much hot air. Could our parents really have taken this soft soap version of Manifest Destiny seriously? No wonder we blundered our way into Vietnam! Still, I loved it, every minute of it. Maybe I couldn't defend it as serious Capital A Art, but I'd have gladly gone on the road with it forever.
Thirty years later, seeing the old fashioned turning into the Historic, embodied in yet another generation of performers who can be trusted to transmit a sense of who we were and what we dreamed to our grandchildren-- that's what it means to be part of a civilization, and participate in Culture with a capital C. On the Reagle stage, the youngsters blaze with fresh discoveries, the old folks dispense Hammerstein's brand of proverbial wisdom as if they'd just summed up their own particular life's learning and expect that the people who are listening will take every syllable to heart. And everybody does: it's wonderful! All 56 of them! (Ellen Hanley, Rob Sutton, Kristin Gillies, Roy Earley, Casey Colgan, Meredith Campbell, Harold W. Walker, Dave McGuire, .Jennifer Turey, .J. Michael Beech, Nathan Croner, Rebecca Link, Randall Graham,.Matthew Ohnemus, Jean-Alfred Chavier,.Erik Sachs, Margie Quinlan, Suzanne O'Connor, Carly Johanson, .Katie Ford, Lisa Berger, Anne Beth Carey, Dorothea Garland, Darcy Hutchinson, Heidi Kellner, Taliesin Lenhart, Lisa Maietta, Susan Mantel, Vanessa McMahon, Tim McShea, Dustienne Miller, Peter Ostaltsov, Marissa Ventre, Jonathan White, Royce K. Zakery, Lisa Bergeron, Carl Cincotta, Anthony M. Consolo, Evan Robert Crothers, Ben Flad, Douglas Hodge, Karl Hudson, Beth Hunnefeld, Andrew Johnson, Christian Kiley, Kelly Kroll, Ryan Landry, Shonna McEachern, Stuart Milne, Karen E. Mulvey, Katherine Elizabeth Robinson, Laura Scalese, Jennifer Sheehy, Bethany Lynn Slack, Alexander Tobin, Tanisha Yancey)
The entire cast sings and dances, individually and in concert, without strain or self conscious virtuosity. Well-- an exception: Colgin and his cowboy sidekicks in challenge dances like "Kansas City" do practice, in character, the conscious virtuosity dance has in common with folk forms like steer roping and bronc busting, and they do it so well they make you want to whoop and holler in praise of 'em. The Reagle ensemble's fullness of expression, the way the beauty of Rodgers' melodies and the truth of Hammerstein's words are simply taken for granted, is on a level with the secure artistry of the subsidized troupes of Europe and England performing the repertoire that is their own National Art Form. The last time I saw 56 actors on a stage was at the Olivier Theatre in London, in the Royal National company's "An Enemy of the People". In spite of scenic brilliance and split second blocking and an award winning star turn, that mega-resourced company was out of its home territory, and the individual performances by the ensemble were all over the aesthetic map. The prize winning production at the Olivier last season was the National's own version of "Oklahoma!". With the pick of English talent and a multimillion budget, I suppose that it's possible that it may be even better than the Reagle's-- but at the moment I can't imagine how.
Bob Eagle has been producing miracles like this "Oklahoma!" and last year's choreographically restored "Brigadoon" and the two crackerjack "Crazy For You" stagings in a row so regularly now that the Reagle Players amount to a world class living museum of the American musical theatre. What makes each successful show a miracle is that Eagle has built his company on a kid's training program run out of Waltham High School, with the rare result that it resembles a real Capital A capital T Art Theatre, not just another job shopping production company. After 32 seasons, Eagle can draw on a casting pool that contains a second and even a third generation of performers who have worked together and grown into confidence and comfort with the idioms of the American musical. But this isn't quite recognized as the Astounding Accomplishment it is. Every year, Reagle has to convince the Waltham school committee and the superintendents and principals and custodians that Show Biz and/or The Arts of Musical Theatre are worthy of a place in the curriculum, and the host of non Equity performers that the reward of a two weekend run justifies all the trouble and mess and effort and money involved for the great majority of the Reagle performers who are either students or community theatre amateurs. Although the exquisite balance of the "Oklahoma!" ensemble was the production's greatest strength, applause from the home town segment of the audience tipped that balance at the curtain call in favor of beloved veteran trouper Harold Walker, a history teacher at Waltham High School whose 35th Reagle role is an Ali Hakim played as close to over-the-top vaudeville as Eagle's tight direction permits.
To make it possible for people like Walker-- and Rob
Early who plays Jud Frye, and Dave McGuire who plays Andrew
Carnes-- to practice the art they love in their own home town yet on the
highest level, Eagle and his board have to talk hundreds of individual
Walthamites and a half dozen corporations into donating money or running
raffles and selling enough tickets so that the Players can hire conductor
Groth and a full orchestra and teaching artists such as Gemze De
Lappe and Boston Ballet's Randall Graham to transmit the authentic
performance style of each show to this dedicated core of local talent;
as well as secure Equity's continuing permission to top off Reagle casts
with a handful of ringers who are as good as, if not as well known as,
the most celebrated Broadway stars. The Reagle audience is an appreciative
one, but alas, still dotted with empty seats. Concede that The Musical
is a declining art form and perhaps this is the best that can be expected.
But if it's really alive and well and playing in Waltham, there should
be lines overnight at the box office, cheering crowds hitching themselves
to the Surry with the Fringe on Top and parading the performers through
the streets! For the price of a movie ticket and a drink and a box
of popcorn, 180 lovable minutes of something Historic and wonderful beyond
all telling can be yours, too.