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Rauch delivers a rousing ‘Oklahoma!’

Let’s cut straight to the chase. Bill Rauch’s production of “Oklahoma!” by Rodgers and Hammerstein is a total delight. That’s not too surprising; when you put together a person of Rauch’s creative insight and a classic musical as vaunted as this one, it’s bound to please, and it does, with a warm audience reception that manifests with roaring applause from the very first song and continues until the end of the show. Costuming is wonderful, and casting is spectacular — and a talented sextet under conductor Daniel Gary Busby provides superb accompaniment to the action.

Much has been made of this production being same-sex-relationship oriented, and perhaps the greatest triumph of Rauch’s excellent directing is that while Curly (Tatiana Wechsler), Laurey (Royer Bockus), Will (Jordan Barbour) and Ado Andy (Jonathan Luke Stevens) are all involved romantically in ways that would make Mike Pence walk out of the show, none of them is “conspicuously gay.” Instead, Rauch’s take on the work makes the simple and correct assumption that love comes in all forms; there is none of the typical (and typically tone-deaf) campy nudge-nudge nonsense to which so many conventional directors would fall prey when bending the boilerplate in what has typically been seen as a gender stereotypical play. In fact, the only conventional role that I found to be conspicuous in this particular show belonged to the openly straight Jud Fry (Michael Sharon) who was so excessively sinewy and masculine in his performance that he managed to cross over into the fetishistic Tom of Finland muscle queen archetype for which many a fellow would gladly swoon. Sharon is an exceptional actor who deftly handles Jud’s peculiar combination of rage and sorrow.

Wechsler and Bockus do very well as Curly and Laurey, with Wechsler in particular holding up her end with aplomb. The precarious nature of her existence as a gay woman on the windswept plains is well-handled, and her scenes with Jud, rather than Laurey, are among the best of the piece.

Barbour’s Parker is a strong performance, a robustly carnal piece of slightly kitschified alpha swagger. As Ali Hakim, Barzin Akhavan is excellent as a Persian peddler who also has a strong interest in Ado Andy. Being gay in Iran, then or now, could result in capital punishment. One of the most compelling elements of the play is the ongoing subtle message as to how deeply the pervasive and oppressive nature of heteronormative conditioning has affected everyone from an aging aunt on the prairie to a huckster from half a world away.

That aunt, by the way, was played with quiet brilliance by Bobbi Charlton, a trans actor with some decades in the business. As Aunt Eller, Charlton simply goes about their business as a prairie homesteader, but the impression that is created is rather unsettling. Charlton makes Aunt Eller a person who is constantly alert to their surroundings and to the possibility of a dangerous situation emerging at any moment. Whether this was a deliberate choice or a mistake of habit, the artist really brought home to the audience that sense of impending violence with which so many LGBTQ2+ people must daily and horrifically live. The understated performance brought me to tears.

The other standout acting job in the show came from Jonathan Luke Stevens as dreamy Ado Andy, a gushy and emotional romantic with a strong eye for, well, most any guy. Stevens was born for this role, and he’s well-bred in the show, with a boyish enthusiasm and a winning ingenue turn that really shifts the energy on the Bowmer stage whenever he appears. Stevens is only three seasons in at OSF, and one senses that this show is a turning point for him.

K.T. Vogt spends her short time on stage well as the hilarious shotgun-marriage oriented mother to Andy, and the rest of the cast does very well. An exceptionally deft and moving piece of choreography by Ann Yee at the end of Act One is reason alone to buy the ticket.

It’s a bittersweet experience to watch this production which shows Rauch at the height of his powers and in full command of his creative team. Soon he’ll be gone, wooed away by the Eastern establishment, and one would hope that his departure won’t mean a return to endless, dry little productions of Chekhov. For now, we can consider ourselves blessed to have an artist of Rauch’s stature on the Left Coast. OSF’s “Oklahoma!” is yet another reminder of just how good Rauch and his actors can be.

— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

Jenny Graham / OSF photo Can Laurey (Royer Bockus) and Curly (Tatiana Wechsler) overcome their pride and admit their feelings for each other? The answer lies in 'Oklahoma!' now playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.