Video: The making of groundbreaking ‘Oklahoma!’ at Denver Center

In this behind-the scenes video, hear from DCPA Theatre Company Artistic Director Chris Coleman and his creative team about setting Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical Oklahoma! in a historically correct African-American town.

You’ll see how Scenic Director Wilson Chin conceived his stunning sky and clouds and how Choreographer Dominique Kelley went through casting the show with curvy women, stocky men and actors of differing shades of skin. “Dancers are athletes but they are artists first,” Kelley says. What does this century-old story tell us about who we are today? Watch and learn.

Oklahoma! continues in the DCPA’s Stage Theatre through October 14. Video by DCPA Video Producer David Lenk and Senior Arts Journalist John Moore.

OklahomaOklahoma! Ticket information

  • Written by: Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics). Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. Original Dances by Agnes de Mille
  • Dates: Through October 14
  • Where: Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Information: Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • Groups: Call 800-641-1222

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

 

Donna Bryson: How a black ‘Oklahoma!’ is an even more deeply American story

‘Oklahoma!’ continues through October 14 in the Denver Center’s Stage Theatre.

 

The ending of the musical serves as an ominous foreshadowing to the struggles black Americans would face in coming decades

While hiking along the Colorado-Oklahoma border this summer, my daughter, Thandi, stepped across the state line and, along with our guide and a few of the cornier members of our tour group, belted out a rousing “Oklahoma!”

The musical is a family favorite. We have many times watched our DVD of the 1998 Royal National Theatre production with Hugh Jackman as Curly. We have that audio recording on CD as well as a recording of the 1943 Broadway cast.

So, I know the story. I knew Laurey was an orphan. But that biographical background meant little to me until we saw the Oklahoma! stage production at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts that DCPA artistic director Chris Coleman set in an early 20th century African-American town.

I wondered about the fate of Laurey’s parents, a question that had not crossed my mind when I saw other productions. Had the missing mother and father been victims of racist violence? And what of Aunt Eller, who had surely been born in slavery? Was Laurey her biological niece, or a child she loved as her own after her own were sold away? Through this lens, I saw new nuances in Laurey’s attachment to her aunt and her difficulties forming other ties.

Oklahoma! ends with a wedding and a death, as victory and violence have so often been twinned in American history. By setting the story in an African-American town, Coleman makes the show even more deeply American.

The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is set in 1906, 41 years after the end of the Civil War and a year before Oklahoma became a state. At the time, 50 all-black towns were home to 137,000 African-Americans in the Oklahoma territory. Such refuges existed across America, including in Dearfield, founded in 1910 75 miles northwest of Denver.

The death at the end of the show was ominous, foreshadowing the likely end to the town and the struggles black Americans would face in coming decades.

In real life, some black communities, including Dearfield, withered because of economic difficulties exacerbated by racism. Some were destroyed in deadly attacks by white supremacists – Greenwood, Oklahoma, in 1921, and Rosewood, Florida, in 1923.

As I watched the DCPA show, I was reminded of a conversation I’d had earlier in the day with an investment director for a Denver foundation that supports families in some of our neediest neighborhoods. The director is African-American and has family roots in Five Points, a historically black Denver neighborhood now being transformed by gentrification. Her family lost their Five Points home.

“That’s the trauma,” she told me. “There’s an insecurity about where you’re going to live. And even when you set community, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to stay.”

In the DCPA production, Coleman left it to his choreographer Dominique Kelly to give us a hint of the future. The reprise of the showstopping title song is introduced with stepping, a dance form linking African-Americans to Africa. It was a percussive, brilliant tribute to a culture’s resiliency. Perhaps Curly, Laurey and Aunt Eller’s town did not endure. But their descendants will find a way to thrive.

About the Author:

Journalist Donna Bryson was born in Florida, grew up in California, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northwestern University and has reported from four continents. She is currently a freelance journalist living in Colorado with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published by, among others, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Daily Beast, Equal Times, Stanford Social Innovation Review, The New York Times, Stars and Stripes, VICE and The Wall Street Journal.

OklahomaOklahoma! Ticket information

  • Written by: Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics). Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. Original Dances by Agnes de Mille
  • Dates: Through October 14
  • Where: Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Information: Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • Groups: Call 800-641-1222

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

 

DCPA at 40: Tyne Daly recalls short and sweet Denver opening

Tyne Daly starred in the celebrated inaugural DCPA Theatre Company production of ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ to launch the 1979-80 season, but she did not finish the run.

Future star of stage and screen headlined inaugural production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle but did not finish the run

When the Denver Center Theatre Company debuted on New Year’s Eve 1979 with the first of three plays opening on successive nights, Tyne Daly was not yet Tyne Daly. She was a 33-year-old mother of two still three years from becoming a household name on TV’s “Cagney & Lacey.”

Not that she was unknown. Daly already had an Emmy Award nomination for her supporting work in the 1977 TV movie Intimate Strangers and was well-known in the Los Angeles theatre scene. But she auditioned at an open casting call in Los Angeles alongside dozens of others hoping to win one of a whopping 40 jobs in the Denver Center’s inaugural resident company of actors who would christen the new $13 million Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex.

Daly won over founding DCTC Artistic Director Edward Payson Call, who cast her in the lead role of Grusha in Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and as Pip in Orson Welles’ Moby Dick Rehearsed. She joined a company that included fellow future stars Tandy Cronyn and Delroy Lindo alongside prominent Denver actors such as Jamie Newcomb, the intentionally lower-cased donnie l. betts and Jerry Webb. In coming seasons, they would be joined by Mercedes Ruehl and Annette Bening, among others.

Daly was raising two daughters with Cuban actor Georg Stanford Brown (star of TV’s “The Rookies”) at the time. Why was she willing leave her young family behind in L.A. for an extended stay in Denver when she surely didn’t need to take the job? The question makes her laugh.

“Oh I absolutely did have to take the job,” Daly told the DCPA NewsCenter on the eve of her recent return to TV in the new “Murphy Brown.” “I wasn’t a personage of any kind at the time. I was a journeyman television guest star. It was hard for me to leave my kiddies behind with their dad. But in those days, if you wanted to be an actor, you had to be a juggler. So I juggled. I remember other actors brought their wives and children to Denver, and I was so jealous. But my girls were 12 and 9 at the time and they had school.”

Daly wanted the five-month Denver contract because she knew of Call’s reputation at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. Despite her early success in television, Daly said, “I was always a theatre animal.” And Call handed her an enormously appealing slate of roles. “For the opportunity to stretch from playing a Russian peasant girl in The Caucasian Chalk Circle to an 18th-century actress who plays the role of Pip in Moby Dick Rehearsed felt to me like I was being finally accredited as an actress with some scope,” Daly said.

The DCTC was a true repertory company back then, meaning all 40 actors appeared in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and then they were then divided up for alternating performances of Moby Dick Rehearsed and Molière’s The Learned Ladies.

A night for Denver’s history books

The three-day celebration culminated on a Wednesday night with a gala for Denver’s history books, with celebrities in attendance ranging from Lucille Ball to Denver native Douglas Fairbanks Sr. to Jimmy Stewart to Lynn Fontanne to Leonard Nimoy, most of whom were lured to the festivities by Denver Center founder Donald R. Seawell to see legendary actor Henry Fonda receive the American National Theatre and Academy’s prestigious National Artists’ Award. It was the first time the honor ever had been presented outside of New York or Los Angeles.

From the Denver Center Theatre Company program in 1979-80.

Even the press corps harbored its own rising star: Molly Ivins was here reporting on the event for The New York Times. She described the atmosphere as “healthily frantic,” and said the opening of the DCPA signaled Denver’s entrance into the theatrical big leagues. That no doubt pleased Seawell, who for months had trumpeted the opening as the start of no less than “The Denver Decade in the American Theatre.” That was the absolute expectation – and there were signs trumpeting the claim all over the complex.

Read more: Mollly Ivins’ 1979 report on the DCPA opening

Newcomb (most recently seen in the DCPA Theatre Company’s All the Way) and fellow company actor Darrie Lawrence (Appoggiatura) were fully star struck. Lawrence describes the atmosphere as “a shiver of expectation and excitement.”

The crowd that gathered for Fonda’s dinner was so full, Newcomb said, the actors had to eat backstage by the dressing rooms. Lawrence was charmed enough just to be eating with her castmate, Daly. “To me, Tyne already was Hollywood royalty,” Lawrence said – not only for her TV and stage credits to date but because of her husband (Brown), older brother Tim Daly (“Wings”) and father James Daly (“Medical Center).

“We were eating with Tyne when she saw that Henry Fonda was starting to leave,” said Newcomb. “So she says, ‘I gotta go!’ and she just literally flew over and caught him.” Daly remembers Fonda complimenting her work in Moby Dick Rehearsed. “I still cite that,” she said with a laugh.

Those who saw Daly’s performance in The Caucasian Chalk Circle speak about it in resplendent terms. DCPA Chairman Martin Semple, then the company’s outside legal counsel, still considers The Caucasian Chalk Circle to be the most remarkable production in the DCPA Theatre Company’s 40-year history. “I was blown away,” Semple said. “I thought that play was as good as anything I had ever seen in New York or London, and I knew then that we had something really special here in Denver.”

(Story continues below the photo.)

The inaugural DCTC resident acting cast and crew in 1979.

 

Juliet Wittman, the longtime theatre critic for Westword, was an audience member during that inaugural run, and years later she wrote: “In my life, there have been a few theatrical events that I felt privileged to have experienced and that lodged in my heart forever ­­– and one of them was Tyne Daly in the Denver Center’s first-ever production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle.”

Read more: For two inaugural Denver Center actors, you can come home again

Also among the audience were the two guardians of Brecht’s estate, who left impressed.

“There is a lyric in the show that says, ‘Your father was a pimp, your mother is a whore, and all good children should come to war’ – ­ and they said they thought Brecht would have approved of my delivery of that,” Daly said. “That will keep an actor going for about a year and a half.”

An abrupt curtain call

Daly freely admits that her work in The Caucasian Chalk Circle neither began nor ended well. Call, who turned 90 in August, was already a director of international repute. In 1965, he had directed a seminal production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle starring Zoe Caldwell at The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and he was hoping to re-create that magic in Denver with Daly.

Tyne Daly during the 1979-80 season.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle, written by Brecht in 1948, is a parable about a peasant girl who rescues a baby and becomes a better mother than its wealthy natural parents. It is a play-within-a-play based on a Chinese folk tale that Brecht set in (then) present-day Russian Georgia, where Noah was said to have landed the Ark, where Jason sought the Golden Fleece and where Prometheus was chained to a rock.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Call saw the play not as a picture of Soviet collectivism but as a renewal of the area’s ancient values after the holocaust of war. Brecht said the central couple of Grusha and Azdak personified renewal and goodness in a dark world. But Daly felt she could never measure up to Caldwell, now a four-time Tony Award-winning actor. (Daly has since won six Emmy Awards, one Tony Award and has been inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.)

“Ed Payson Call was an ideal of mine. He was a terrific director who knew that play backward and forward,” Daly said. “Zoe Caldwell was another ideal of mine. But I felt like I had her ghost to deal with the whole time. We stumbled a little bit in the beginning, and after four weeks of rehearsal, I asked Ed if we could have coffee. I said to him: ‘Ed, I have tried all this time to give you my very, very best Zoe Caldwell. But I’m not Zoe Caldwell. Now, can I be in the play?’ And so we found that middle ground between my complete innocence of the play and his deep knowledge of it. And we made it a success.”

Moby Dick Rehearsed.

Daly admits to far more enjoying her experience in Moby Dick Rehearsed, which also was first intended to be directed by Call. But as rehearsals approached, he knew it would be too much so he handed the reigns to William Woodman. “I still love Moby Dick Rehearsed  to the bottom of my feet,” Daly said. “I think it’s such a terrific play.”

But shortly after both plays opened, Daly took a consequential phone call from her agent. She had been offered a supporting role in a TV movie called The Women’s Room starring Lee Remick. Daly would play a suburban wife who realizes two of her best friends are sleeping with her husband. Daly accepted.

“I quit one job to do another one, and that’s the first time I’d ever done that,” Daly said. “It was painful. Ed was furious at me. He said I was letting down the theatre forever and shamed me. I felt bad about it.”

Before leaving Denver, Daly walked understudy Karen Landry through both roles. But because she had to depart so abruptly, Daly had to leave her VW bug behind in Denver. When filming on the movie was complete, she flew back to Denver to retrieve her car. Both plays were still running, so she saw them. “It was sort of like Tom Sawyer at his own funeral,” Daly said. “I had to have one bracing drink before I went in to see The Caucasian Chalk Circle — and I loved it.” Landry, who would go on to a significant stage and screen career of her own before her death in 2016, made an impression on Daly. “She did some wonderful things with the part,” Daly said. “I remember thinking, ‘Look at that! Why didn’t Ed tell me to do that?’ I had fits of terrible jealousy.”

(Story continues below the photo.)

Tyne Daly in ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle.’

 

Daly still has fond memories of her time Denver, especially being housed at the swank Brown Palace Hotel. “That is still one of my favorite hotels ever,” she said. She remembers a trysting couch in the atrium, the vaunted stained-glass windows and marble in every color. She also remembers forgetting to warn her young daughters about a perilous scene that took place on a bridge in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. “Grusha falls through a breakaway step while holding the baby, and it scared the poop out of my girls,” she said.

Looking back, Daly said she fully appreciated back in 1979 what an ambitious undertaking the new Denver Center was, “and the proof of that is that they’re going still,” she said.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

“I had such a great time in Denver,” she added. “I am sorry that I let Ed Call down, but I do still count that experience as one of the really solid working times of my life where I learned an enormous amount from people who knew more than me. I’m 72 years old now, and I’m still trying to be in rooms where people are smarter and funnier and quicker and more inventive than I am. That’s what keeps it fun.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

 

Tyne Daly as Phyllis on ‘Murphy Brown.’ Photo by Jojo Whilden/CBS

Tyne Daly/Sound bites:

On returning to “Murphy Brown playing Phil’s bar-owning sister, Phyllis: “Once again I’m in a room with people who are smarter and funnier and more experienced than I am. This kind of TV is sort of a bastard form of theatre, because there is a live audience and there are actors playing scenes. But in between is this huge line of machines, technicians and all sorts of other people. So it’s different. We’ll see what the traffic will allow.” (“Murphy Brown” airs at 8:30 p.m. MDT on CBS.)

On why she prefers live theatre to TV: “Theatre is meant to galvanize whatever community you are in. You are all in the same room together sharing something. I love that in the theatre, I am in the same room with the people I’m telling the story to. If I’m watching on TV, I’m at home and also doing the laundry or napping. I’m a romantic, but I love that you don’t record theatre performances. And yet if we actors have done our job, we will still leave the audience with something that I don’t think ever goes away.”

On working with Denver native and George Washington High School graduate Sierra Boggess in the Broadway play Master Class: “Oh, she’s a doll face. First of all, she’s amazingly talented. Second of all, the assignment she had with me in Master Class was as foreign to her as playing Maria Callas was to me. So with the help of our wonderful director Stephen Wadsworth, we really plumbed some depths. Sierra is a terrific lady, and the only thing I hold against her is that she’s totally tied to all of her electronic devices. She’s a 21st-century actor, and it’s hard for 21st-century actors to be friends with an 18th-century actor — which is me!”

Note: This is the first in a series of DCPA NewsCenter stories marking the DCPA Theatre Company’s newly opened 40th season.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

One of Molly Ivins’ reports from the opening off the DCPA for The New York Times

Video, photos: Your first look at ‘The Constant Wife’

Your first look at the DCPA Theatre Company’s  new production of The Constant Wife. Constance Middleton cheerfully plays her traditional role as the intelligent, charming housewife of a successful doctor. But as her friends and family keep secrets close to their chest, she has nothing to hide — and everything to gain. Featuring an infectiously plucky heroine at the helm Variety calls “a predecessor to the women of Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City,” this cheeky satire overturns the expectations of relationships, fidelity and social roles that were just as relevant in the 1920s as they are today. Video above by DCPA Video Producer David Lenk. Photos below by Adams VisCom.

Gallery of The Constant Wife!  production photos:

Go to our complete gallery of The Constant Wife production photos

The Constant WifeThe Constant Wife: Ticket information

  • Written by: W. Somerset Maugham
  • Dates: Performances through Oct. 21 (Opens Sept. 28)
  • Where: Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Information: Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • Groups: Call 800-641-1222

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Comedy and the ‘constant’ quest for equality and freedom

From left: Actor Rodney Lizcano, Director Shelley Butler, Actor Miriam A. Laube and Dramaturg Allison Horsley at a public conversation about the DCPA Theatre Company’s ‘The Constant Wife,’ opening September 28. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter

W. Somerset Maugham gave us a 1920s heroine whose strength and resourcefulness make her compelling for any time, says the director

If anyone were to ask when feminism first began to assert itself, the answer is simple: in the Garden of Eden. And it’s been everywhere since, most visibly in dramatic literature, from Medea and Lysistrata, to the works of Shakespeare, Molière, George Bernard Shaw and so many others.

In the early 1920s, British playwright, novelist and screenwriter W. Somerset Maugham took on the subject of differing moral and behavioral standards for men and women in his play The Constant Wife. At the time, feminism was not on everybody’s radar.

World War I was over. It was permissible to laugh again; emancipation was in the air and comedy in demand. Shaw was the proselytizer-in-chief for women. His feminist comedies were sharp, brittle and biting, with a caustic edge of ridicule reserved for the men. (Think Pygmalion, Major Barbara and Mrs. Warren’s Profession.) Others, however, still used flippancy to blunt the seriousness of the battle of the sexes. Noël Coward’s Private Lives, for one, favored frivolity to deliver what was deemed strictly momentary fun.

Take a deeper dive into the DCPA Theatre Company’s The Constant Wife

While riding the same giddy tidal wave of theatre-light that was prologue to the flapper era, Maugham was not sharp, giddy or light. He was subtle. The Constant Wife is an undercover comedy of manners, delivered with tact, precision, elegance — and a deadly sting.

When we shared an email conversation about her production of The Constant Wife, director Shelley Butler declared Maugham “a master at keeping audiences on their toes.”

“I’m intrigued by his continued interest in exposing the double standards of his day,” she offered, “and his boldness in presenting the flaws and hypocrisies of upper-class society directly to that class of people, in the form of entertainment.”

Maugham’s Constance Middleton, the wife of the title, is an unconventional heroine — a rebel inside a classy woman who married well but had not banked on being humiliated by a husband with a roving eye. When that happened, she found a highly original way to deal with it. Without a shred of militancy, this model of upper crust gentility completely upended the custom of her day.

It is delicate, seductive playwriting, devilishly well done. Yet while Constance is a disarming maverick, is she believable for her time?

“Her strength and resourcefulness make her compelling for any time,” insisted Butler. “Constance doesn’t feel like a tool, but like a character given agency; she assesses a volatile situation and takes her time before sorting how to respond; a savvy woman, written with keen wit, she was revelatory for her time and remains incredibly satisfying today.

“The playwright is asking questions about society as much as he’s making a point, which makes the play intriguing as opposed to didactic. I love that he centered the play on a powerful woman who doesn’t respond with melodrama or make any clichéd or expected choices.”

But not so fast. Yes, Constance Middleton’s uniqueness lies in her deliberate decisions, including the decision to earn her own money. But in the 1920s, wouldn’t her moves be seen as a quest for revenge rather than equality?

“Her decisions underscore the intertwining of sexual independence with economic freedom,” said Butler, who suggested the audience should ponder the connection between the two “and how they apply differently to men and women, even today.”

Shelley Butler on bringing Denver’s Melissa Benoist into Broadway’s Beautiful

Still, many of the characters within Constance’s orbit — her old boyfriend, her girlfriend, her mother, her sister Martha, and even her husband and his paramour — are pleasant yet far less delineated individuals, seemingly created chiefly to service the plot.

Again, Butler countered. “While these characters aren’t central, there’s meat on their bones. Martha, for example, is feisty and well-spoken and has a clear objective. I think there’s a great deal an actor can interpret as to why Martha feels the way she does about betrayal and marriage. And the dynamics of her difficult relationship with her mother are endlessly interesting. While the arc of these characters is not the central arc, they are truthfully drawn and a compelling cast will imbue them with enough humor and depth that they’ll all earn their place in the play.”

Which explains why The Constant Wife has enjoyed many revivals, one in 1951 with Katharine Cornell, a London revival in 1973 with Ingrid Bergman of all people (it had its problems), and a particularly vibrant one in 2006 at the San Diego Old Globe. They tell us why this play continues to resonate.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Its acclaimed opening was in New York in 1926, with Ethel Barrymore in the lead. But at the London opening the following year, a box office muddle sent VIPs to the stalls and lesser mortals to the best seats, creating total havoc. It took another 10 years for it to find favor with London’s critics, the Times declaring that Maugham had a story to tell “both entertaining and, so far as it goes, true.”

That “so far as it goes” makes an interesting point. Constance closes a door behind her, much as Nora does in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, leaving us to wonder what her future holds.

“The play remains incredibly fresh,” a confident Butler added, “and its humor, wit and playfulness retain the ability to capture a modern audience. I am always delighted by a play [that can] surprise and keep an audience guessing.”

Sylvie Drake is a former theatre critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a translator, a contributor to culturalweekly.com and American Theatre magazine, and a former Director of Media Relations and Publications for The Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

 

The Constant WifeThe Constant Wife: Ticket information

  • Written by: W. Somerset Maugham
  • Dates: Performances now through Oct. 21 (Opens Sept. 28)
  • Where: Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Information: Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • Groups: Call 800-641-1222

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

The cast of the DCPA Theatre Company’s ‘The Constant Wife.’ Photo by John Moore. Go to our complete gallery of photos.

After 75 years, ‘Oklahoma’ through a colorful new lens

Video: Your first look at the DCPA Theatre Company’s 75th Anniversary production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s  Oklahoma! set in a historically accurate African-American town in 1906.

 

Chris Coleman is setting the classic musical in an African-American town, and he looks forward to the conversations that spurs

When Artistic Director Chris Coleman opens Oklahoma! for the DCPA Theatre Company, it will be just the second time a director has employed a primarily African-American cast in the 75-year history of the beloved American stage musical.

The first was Chris Coleman, for Portland Center Stage in 2011.

Coleman was initially seized by a little-known historical fact that never let him go: In 1906, the year before Oklahoma became a state and the same year the famous story is set, there were 50 all-black towns in the Oklahoma Territory and 137,000 African-Americans living there. Here appeared to be one speck of dust on the national map where blacks could be full participants in Manifest Destiny — that uniquely American belief that westward expansion was both justified and inevitable.

“There was actually a movement to make Oklahoma an all-black state, and there was great fear among white residents of that happening,” Coleman said. “I had never heard any of that in my history classes. And I got curious about what it would mean if African-American artists got the chance to tell this story.”

That story is the same hopelessly optimistic and yet psychologically dark yarn audiences have adored since Oklahoma! opened on Broadway back in World War II 1943: Ranch hands and rival suitors Curly and creepy Jud woo a farm girl named Laurey, with deadly consequences. But in the end, the farmers and the ranchers band together to celebrate the new state of Oklahoma.

Behind the scenes photos: The making of the Denver Center’s Oklahoma!

Only in Coleman’s production, there are no white people. Back in 2011, he had no idea the impact that
would have on actors and audiences alike.

“I vividly remember during one rehearsal looking over at the actors playing Curly and Ado Annie,” Coleman said. “They were sitting on the floor watching a scene and tears were just streaming down their faces — and it wasn’t a sad scene. So I asked them, ‘Why are you crying?’ And one of them said, ‘I just realized I have never sat through a play about black people that wasn’t about being oppressed by an outsider. This was about our community just living their lives, and falling in love, and trying to make something of their lives.’ ”

Audiences responded, Coleman said, according to their own experience. “Some people came in and they just saw Oklahoma! — and they thought it was awesome. Some people said, ‘After 10 minutes, it just seemed like that is the story’ — and they went with it.”

And some people said it was a revelatory staging. Coleman said Ted Chapin, President of the Rodgers & Hammerstein music publishing company, told him it was the most thrilling production he’d ever seen of Oklahoma!, because he had seen it through totally new eyes.

But perhaps Coleman’s favorite comment was from a 15-year-old white kid seeing Oklahoma! for the first time. At intermission, he said to Coleman, “You know what? I can’t imagine this story with white people.” That’s just the way the story made sense to him. “So I think it completely depends on who you are,” Coleman said.

Seven years later, Coleman wasn’t interested in launching his tenure as the DCPA Theatre Company’s new Artistic Director with a traditional take on Oklahoma! After all, he said, “White folks have had their chance to perform Oklahoma! for 75 years.”

The main reason any theatre company revisits a classic, Coleman said, “is because there’s something in the bones of the piece that has resonated for humans over time. But we’re also always looking for the current resonance. What does it tell us about who we are today?”

In 2018, Coleman is revisiting his casting concept in a much more racially charged America. And he looks forward to the conversations that spurs.

(Story continues below the photo gallery)

Go to our complete gallery of Oklahoma! production photos

“What I love most about doing this show now is the idea of hearing a group of African-American performers sing the lyrics, ‘We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand,’ because that is in such sharp contrast to the dialogue we’re hearing in the country about race right now,” Coleman said.

He does offer one warning: If you are looking for corn, skip this Oklahoma! Try Iowa instead.

“When people go back and watch that… movie, they think it’s corny because it is,” Coleman said. “But Rodgers and Hammerstein’s stories are so complex. They’re about racism and social tensions. Now don’t get me wrong — there are enormous doses of sunlight available in Oklahoma! But if you honor the story, there is also danger and sexual creepiness and a very twisted sense of Western justice.”

There was a huge migration of African-Americans from the Deep South after Reconstruction, particularly to Oklahoma, because land opened up. “And I’m really interested in seeing if we can’t pull off the humility and the texture and the dignity of the real people from that period,” Coleman said. “These are people who’ve picked up their lives and families and come to an unknown place to build a life and a community.

“What’s exciting to me now is getting to watch African-Americans figure out ‘What is our community? What are the tensions? What are the hopes and dreams we are moving toward? How do we build something together? How do we join the community of America at a certain moment in history? I think all of that is really interesting.

“But even if you’re not interested in that — you still get Oklahoma!

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Oklahoma

Oklahoma! Ticket information

  • Written by: Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics). Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. Original Dances by Agnes de Mille
  • Dates: Through Oct. 14 (Opens Sept. 14)
  • Where: Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Information: Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • Groups: Call 800-641-1222

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

‘The Constant Wife’ and other women who broke the man’s mold

Gretchen Egolf, who has appeared on Broadway in ‘Jackie’ and ‘Ring Round the Moon,’ is playing Constance in the DCPA Theatre Company’s ‘The Constant Wife.’ Photo by John Moore

A ‘constant’ surprise: Take a look at this fun snapshot of a few other iconic, pioneering stage women

The DCPA Theatre Company’s 40th anniversary season includes at least two stories of women who overcome great societal barriers in ways that should strike audiences as remarkably contemporary, starting this September with W. Somerset Maugham’s cheeky satire The Constant Wife, followed in January by Leo Tolstoy’s opus Anna Karenina.

Consider Constance Middleton, a privileged 1920s British woman who would appear to have everything as she cheerfully plays her traditional domestic role. But in time she manages to elude the strict societal confines of relationships, fidelity and social roles to forge her own economic future and discover true happiness. Which may make The Constant Wife a century old but, hardly a period piece.

“This play is a hilariously witty, totally fresh, look at marriage,” Artistic Director Chris Coleman said. “It’s almost 100 years old, and it feels like it was written yesterday.”

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Women, of course, have faced suffocating gender constricts since the beginning of time. Which means Constance comes from a long line of female stage characters who have fought that “constant” fight throughout the centuries. Here is a tiny, perhaps surprising, surely inadequate but hopefully fun snapshot of just a few other iconic, pioneering feminist stage characters:

Clockwise from top left: Characters representing Mother Courage, Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler, Susy Hendrix, Millie Dillmount and Elle Woods.

  • Anna Fierling, Mother Courage and Her Children: Mother Courage tours Europe with a covered wagon peddling wares during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) with only two objectives: Make money off the war and keep her children alive. She is nothing if not an abrasive anti-hero, but she lives on as perhaps the single greatest literary symbol of the fecklessness of war. And she inspired a considerable descendant in Mama Nadi in Lynn Nottage’s Ruined.
  • Countess Anna Karenina: The titular character of Leo Tolstoy’s opulent masterpiece is a noblewoman and socialite whose glamorous lifestyle shrouds her unhappy marriage. But soon enough, she’s risking her social status, marriage, friends and family for the thrill of forbidden love. That sounds steamy (and it is), but in 1873 Tsarist Russia, that took guts. In January, the Theatre Company will present a lush, modern adaptation (Jan. 25-Feb. 24).
  • Hedda Gabler: Yes, it is crushingly sad that a bored, 1890s Norwegian newlywed fired the shot heard ’round the literary world — into her head. But when that’s the price of true freedom, and Hedda was willing to pay it — that’s what makes her one of the great female characters in theatre history.
  • Millie Dillmount, Thoroughly Modern Millie: Small-town girl comes to New York City to marry for money instead of love. Say what you will, but that’s a thoroughly modern aim for 1922.
  • Susy Hendrix, Wait Until Dark: Blind housewife is targeted by three murdering con-men and is the only one who comes out alive? Check.
  • Elle Woods, Legally Blonde the Musical: Don’t laugh. OK, maybe just a little. Elle Woods, sorority-girl-turned-lawyer? A feminist? You bet. Legally Blonde is a “bait and switch” story that surprised everyone by turning out to be an uncommonly progressive and, dare it be said — empowering piece of fluffy pink feminism that was way ahead of its time. The internet personality “Rogue Feminist” recently revisited the source film and proclaimed it be “incredibly woman-positive and an important staple in feminist pop culture.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

The Constant WifeThe Constant Wife: Ticket information

Constance Middleton cheerfully plays her traditional role as the intelligent, charming housewife of a successful doctor. But as her friends and family keep secrets close to their chest, she has nothing to hide — and everything to gain. Featuring an infectiously plucky heroine at the helm who Variety calls a predecessor “to the women of Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City,” this cheeky satire overturns the expectations of relationships, fidelity and social roles that were just as relevant in the 1920s as they are today.

  • Written by: W. Somerset Maugham
  • Dates: Sept. 21-Oct. 21 (Opens Sept. 28)
  • Where: Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Information: Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • Groups: Call 800-641-1222

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Video, photos: Your first look at Denver Center’s ‘Oklahoma!’

Your first look at the DCPA Theatre Company’s groundbreaking 75th Anniversary production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved musical Oklahoma! set in a historically accurate African-American town in 1906. Directed by Chris Coleman in his Denver debut and choreographed by Dominique Kelley, this production showcases an overlooked piece of American history as one small community stakes its claim on a place that is full of hope. Runs through Oct. 14 in the Stage Theatre at the Denver Performing Arts Complex.  Ticket information below.

Gallery of Oklahoma! production photos:

Go to our complete gallery of Oklahoma! production photos

Oklahoma

Oklahoma! Ticket information

  • Written by: Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics). Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. Original Dances by Agnes de Mille
  • Dates: Through Oct. 14 (Opens Sept. 14)
  • Where: Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Information: Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • Groups: Call 800-641-1222

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Theatre Company expanding services for those with hearing loss

A demonstration of the DCPA Theatre Company’s improved personal closed-captioning devices.

Personal closed-captioning devices will be available at twice as many productions this season

As the DCPA Theatre Company opens its 40th anniversary season this month, it is expanding services for patrons who are deaf or have hearing loss.

Personal closed-captioning devices are being made available for four plays this season: Oklahoma!, A Christmas Carol, Anna Karenina and Sweat. That’s double the number of productions from last season.

A personal closed-captioning device is a portable hand-held tablet that is configured with closed-captioning software, enabling users to enjoy private captioning services in any seating location. The devices will be available at the performances listed below, and may be checked out with a photo ID at the Patron Services desk in the lobby (subject to availability):

  • Oklahoma!: Sept. 18-Oct. 14, 2018
  • A Christmas Carol: Dec. 4-24, 2018
  • Anna Karenina: Feb. 5-24, 2019
  • Sweat: May 7-26, 2019

Personal closed-captioning devices are popular with the deaf and hearing-loss communities, and are especially useful to patrons whose hearing is declining, said Theatre Services Manager Carol Krueger. “Captioning is an easy way for folks who have lost some of their hearing to remain active in the arts,” Krueger said.

Personal closed-captioning devices will be available at all performances of ‘Oklahoma!’ starting Sept. 18. Rehearsal photo by John Moore.

Personal closed-captioning devices are just one way the Denver Center services audiences who are deaf or have hearing loss. The Theatre Company makes both Braille and large-print print programs available for all shows.  And one “0pen-captioning performance” — where live captioning is digitally projected onto a screen near the stage — will be designated for every Broadway run, as well as one Theatre Company performance (Oklahoma! on Sept. 30).

The Denver Center also makes “assistive listening devices” available for all performances. Those are headsets that amplify the sound from the stage for patrons who have hearing loss. But assistive listening devices are limited in their usefulness depending on the state of the patron’s hearing.

The response from audiences to the Denver Center’s enhanced services “has been amazing,” said Kirk Petersen, the Denver Center’s Associate Director of Ticket Services. “We have a small army of patrons who have been very gung-ho in encouraging us to move ahead with these personal-captioning devices.”

The first iteration of the personal closed-captioning system was a trial during the Theatre Company’s 2015 production of Tribes, which featured characters and actors who are deaf or have hearing loss. From this original trial, the personal closed-captioning system has expanded to include 15 devices available for patrons’ usage.

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The devices, Krueger added, are controlled by a live staff person who advances the system in real time, as opposed to using a pre-recorded version. That allows the operator to carefully time the delivery of the words exactly as they are spoken. “Every performance is different,” Krueger said. “Things change, and there are times when the words don’t always match up with the script. Having a live operator also ensures that the captions don’t come up too fast and possibly spoil a punchline before it gets delivered.”

Petersen said as services continue to expand, audiences will have the option of requesting captions in dual languages.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

OklahomaOklahoma! Ticket information

  • Written by: Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics). Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. Original Dances by Agnes de Mille
  • Dates: Through Oct. 14 (Opens Sept. 14)
  • Where: Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Information: Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
  • Groups: Call 800-641-1222
  • Accessible performance: 1:30 p.m. Sept. 30 (American Sign Language, assistive devices and open captioning) BUY ONLINE

What is the role of the rap and the rhymes in ‘Vietgone’?

Here’s why the creators of Vietgone think using an art form that didn’t fully exist in 1975 still makes for the perfect storytelling tool

“You lost a brotha? 
I lost my family.

You lost a brotha?  I lost my whole country.

You lost a brotha? I lost my wife and kids.

You lost a brotha? [Expletive], I lost everything I had.”

Vietgone is a modern play that plays by no rules. It is many things at once — an often silly comedy, a heart-expanding love story and a look back at a troubled time in American history. It is also, at certain points, a play with music. Because playwright Qui Nguyen is the kind of writer who will randomly throw kung-fu fights, ninjas and even hip-hop into his storytelling simply because it amuses him at the time.

But Nguyen’s story is primarily set in 1975, when his Vietnamese parents met at a refugee camp in Arkansas. And hip-hop didn’t enter the popular vocabulary until the 1980s. So an audience member put the question directly to director Seema Sueko at Perspectives, a free public community conversation held before the DCPA Theatre Company’s first preview performance of Vietgone: Isn’t it a bit anachronistic to be using rap in a story that takes place before rap even existed?

Her answer? Yes. Deliberately — and thrillingly — yes.

Vietgone playwright Qui Nguyen: And now, for someone completely different

Nguyen’s script is filled with what Sueko calls “intentional anachronisms,” including easily the most crowd-pleasing scene in the play: An extended ninja battle that showcases the cast’s physical-comedy abilities. Should it matter that ninjas aren’t real? Should it matter that human beings don’t typically break into song, unless they are performing in a musical?

“The theory with musicals has always been that when you are so filled with emotion, you burst into song,” Sueko said. “The fact that the convention here is rap just seems like a perfect fit to me, because rap is such a great vehicle to express anger and aggression and frustration and determination. And those emotions are so prevalent in our story.”

Sueko recruited Denver native Bianca Mikahn, who in 2016 directed Off-Center’s How I Got Over: Journeys in Verse, to join her creative team as Rap Consultant.

“Bianca worked with our actors so that hopefully the audience can really key in and listen to the words of the rap — because they are pretty deep,” Sueko said. “The rap gives us tremendous insight into the characters.”

Lisa Helmi Johanson and Glenn Morizio rap in the Denver Center’s ‘Vietgone.’ Photo by AdamsVisCom.

Vietgone traces the societal and personal obstacles that Nguyen’s parents, Quang and Tong, had to overcome before starting a family in America. A large one being that Quang is an Air Force pilot who already has a young family back at home, but faces execution if he should ever return to Vietnam. And while much of the play is comic in tone, the brief rap interludes are deeply heartfelt.

“At times Quang and Tong are emotionally angry,” Sueko said. “Quang is expressing his refugee experience of losing everything and fighting to get back home. And Tong is expressing her resolve to try to make a new home in a new country. And even though, yes, it is anachronistic, and even though rap did not necessarily exist in 1975, to have that vehicle for these actors to really express their drive really makes for effective storytelling.”

Mikahn agrees. “The view of the playwright is to try to bring so many different worlds together in one space and make them cohesive, and something like hip-hop and rap is perfect for that,” she said. “Throughout the play, his characters use phrases that didn’t exist in 1975. That’s on purpose. And I think the hip-hop offers audiences this amazing vehicle to connect on a very human level to what was happening back then.”

Rap Consultant Bianca Mikahn, left, on Opening Night of Vietgone, with, from her left: actor Lisa Helmi Johanson, Costume Designer Valérie Thérèse Bart, and actor Melody Butiu. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Mikahn is also celebrating the larger “Rap Moment” in popular culture right now. Hamilton is now one of the most celebrated Broadway musicals in history for using rap to tell the colonial story of Alexander Hamilton. Kendrick Lamar recently became the first rapper to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. Closer to home, Breakin’ Convention, an international festival of hip-hop dance theatre, returns to the Denver Performing Arts Complex on Nov. 3-4. Mikahn will be part of the popular 303 Jam on Saturday, Nov. 3. That’s a full afternoon of free activities, performances, live DJs and workshops.

Hip-hop, Mikahn said, is finally starting to be recognized as a perfect vehicle for the intersection of theatre and literature. And it’s happening, she said, “because hip-hop is one of the most visceral art forms that exists.

“Hip-hop is a primer, and I know that it is a very special thing, but not everybody recognizes that yet,” she added. “So to have hip-hop raised up within this Denver Center theatre space in a way that highlights these amazing mechanisms and techniques is really exciting to see.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Opening Night of ‘Vietgone,’ from left: Jordan De Leon, Director Seema Sueko, Lisa Helmi Johanson, Brian Lee Huynh, Melody Butiu and Glenn Morizio. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

See more photos from Opening Night of Vietgone

Vietgone: Ticket information

Vietgone is an ode to the real-life courtship of Playwright Qui Nguyen’s parents. Forced to leave their country during the height of the Vietnam War, two refugees find themselves at the same relocation camp in Arkansas – the land of Harleys and hot dogs. Before they find their way into each other’s arms, they’ll have to blaze a trail in their weird new world and leave behind the baggage they didn’t pack.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter