The Oklahoman and the Chicano Should Be Friends

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One particular detail in a program note caught my eye last Saturday, at the opening of A Noise Within’s revival of John Steinbeck’s epic novel The Grapes of Wrath, as dramatized in 1988 by Frank Galati.

In 1937, two years before the novel The Grapes of Wrath finally emerged in 1939, Steinbeck abandoned his first attempt at writing a novel drawn from the same material — the Dust Bowl migration of Oklahomans to California. That earlier attempt was titled The Oklahomans.

This factoid jumped out of the program on Saturday because a few hours earlier I had been watching Musical Theatre West’s production of Oklahoma!, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach. It’s billed as the show’s 70th anniversary production — the original Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in March 1943, a mere four years after The Grapes of Wrath immortalized the wandering “Okies” in fiction.

Lindsey Ginter, Nicholas Neve, Deborah Strang, Ranya Jaber, Lili Fuller and Andrew Hellenthal in “The Grapes of Wrath” at A Noise Within. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

I wonder…if Steinbeck had kept his original title The Oklahomans and it had made as big a splash as The Grapes of Wrath made in 1939, wouldn’t it have been unlikely that the ground-breaking Rodgers and Hammerstein musical would have been called Oklahoma!? There would have been too much potential for confusion.

Would Oklahoma! instead have kept the title of the 1931 play it was based on — Green Grow the Lilacs, by Lynn Riggs? Not likely — the newer musical’s title was already the livelier Away We Go! when its first tryout took place in New Haven. It was then reportedly changed to Oklahoma! because Away We Go! wasn’t specific enough — it sounded like too many other lighter, now-forgotten musicals.

If the use of the Oklahoma! title had been eliminated because of possible confusion with a Steinbeck best-selling novel called The Oklahomans, perhaps the musical’s creators would have appropriated one of the other song titles from the show as the title of the show. “Poor Jud is Daid”, anyone?  “Lonely Room”? Nah — they wouldn’t have wanted a title that could have created a “lonely room” inside the theater. But perhaps “Many a New Day” might have been able to transcend its specific situation in the score well enough to double as the name of the show itself.

While Oklahoma! and The Grapes of Wrath are both about Oklahomans and appeared within four years of each other, most casual consumers of 20th-century culture wouldn’t necessarily think of the two in the same breath. The general reputation of the novel is that it’s dark and pessimistic, and the reputation of the musical is that it’s bright and optimistic.

Of course those common perceptions are determined in large part by the two different eras in which the stories are set. The musical takes place in 1907, with Oklahoma on the cusp of statehood, while Steinbeck’s novel occurs in the ’30s, as the scourges of the Depression and the Dust Bowl uprooted 15% of Oklahoma’s population, sending many of them to California.

Still, the challenge for a memorable revival of The Grapes of Wrath is to shine a little light on its warmer, more human moments — while not betraying the play’s essential bleakness. And the challenge for a memorable revival of Oklahoma! is to highlight its darker tones — without completely draining its Away We Go!-style energy and romance.

Madison Claire Parks and Christopher Newell in “Oklahoma!” at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center. Photo by A.J. Hernandez.

Finding the heartbreak and the humanity within The Grapes of Wrath certainly appears to have been on the mind of Michael Michetti, who directed it for A Noise Within. In an LA STAGE Times interview, he spoke of how he personally was moved to tears by several moments in the play that depict characters who have virtually nothing, offering some of what little they have to others who are even more desperate.

This sensibility culminates, along with the play itself, in a scene that wasn’t included in the movie version because of Hollywood’s prissier standards in 1940. In it, we see the Joad daughter Rose, abandoned by her husband and having just experienced a delivery of a stillborn child, offering her breast milk to a stranger who is starving.

I can’t say that this scene moved me to tears on Saturday. But it did achieve its requisite gravitas. Actually, if the tearjerking had seemed obvious here — for example, if Rose herself (Lili Fuller) had been audibly sobbing during this scene — the moment would have come off as synthetically sentimental. The relative silence of that last scene, swathed in fading light designed by Elizabeth Harper, is far more effective.

Fortunately, most of the production is hardly stone-cold quiet, which would have made it somewhat somnolent. It’s stocked with appropriate musical interludes and accompaniments by a live band that travels around the theatrical space (the band includes sound designer Robert Oriol). Some of the band members take on small roles in the spotlight of the Joad saga, but at other times the sounds of the band emerge from the darkness behind the audience. It serves the twin purposes of enveloping the audience in a somewhat environmental staging and also of preventing the pace from devolving into a slow crawl.

In fact, the production clocks in at slightly less than three hours — shorter than the length as reported in accounts of the initial productions of Galati’s script in 1988 and 1989.

Any condensed version of an epic novel runs the risk that the characters are boiled down to a few superficial strokes, and Galati’s script doesn’t entirely escape this quality. However, the actors fill in some of the details wordlessly. Behold the lived-in look of Deborah Strang’s Ma Joad, as she effortlessly radiates common sense and compassion. Steve Coombs’ Tom Joad still looks young enough to make credible his sense of fiery idealism — a quality he picks up from the ex-preacher Jim Casy (Matt Gottlieb). As the oldest Joads, Gary Ballard and Jill Hill pull off the production’s few moments of comparative levity — before both of them drop dead, that is.

Melissa Ficociello’s scenic design follows the pattern of the original production — lots of movement of flexible pieces, but she also applies this practice to the construction of the Joad jalopy, which looks truly overburdened as it wanders westward.

Saundra McClain and Stephen Grant Reynolds in “Oklahoma!” at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center. Photo by A.J. Hernandez.

Meanwhile, in Long Beach, Davis Gaines’ staging of Oklahoma! for Musical Theatre West allows the troubles of Oklahoma life to be sensed as well as the frontier’s cocky can-do quality. Of course much of this is written into the script.

The character of the farmhand Jud Fry is very dark, of course. He’s somewhat reminiscent of the loners who, nowadays, shoot up schools and movie theaters. But Rodgers and Hammerstein allowed him a chance to speak his innermost mind in the song “Lonely Room”, and while it doesn’t excuse his behavior, it briefly allows him a modicum of the audience’s pity. This particular Jud (Christopher Newell) isn’t a bad-looking guy, compared to some of the Juds I’ve seen, and this makes his ability to get an initial yes from Laurey, when she agrees to go to the box social with him, a little more credible than usual. Of course he also turns her “Out of My Dreams” song into something that could aptly be titled “Out of My Nightmares.”

The next big song in the show, “The Farmer and the Cowman (Should be Friends),” emphasizes that these two groups are closer to being natural enemies than friends. In the box social that follows, it’s made clear than a man’s gun is just about the last thing he owns that he might willingly give up.

A lot of theatergoers remember the title song more than anything else in the show. It’s about as optimistic as any title song ever — “Oklahoma, OK,” and all that. But perhaps they forget that its two appearances in the show are separated by a scene in which everything is decidedly not OK. A man is killed in a fight, and while his killer has a good self-defense argument, he’s allowed to make that argument in a way that short-circuits the wheels of justice in a manner more fitting to the lawless West than it is to the state that Oklahoma is about to become.

So Gaines didn’t have to do anything particularly extraordinary to emphasize the show’s darker moments, other than making sure they register in a theater as big as the Carpenter Center. He also had to make sure that the voices are as strong as his own, and while that might be difficult for most theatrical singers, his young principals — Madison Claire Parks as Laurey, Bryant Martin as Curly, Newell’s Jud, Teya Patt as Ado Annie and Luke Hawkins as Will Parker — are as accomplished in that regard as the veteran Saundra McClain as Aunt Eller and Stephen Reynolds as Andrew Carnes. Amin El Gamal as Ali Hakim, in conjunction with Patt and Hawkins, also makes the show’s comic exchanges unexpectedly fresh.

The experience of watching these two American classics back to back made me wonder if Laurey and Curly turned into Ma and Pa Joad three decades later. Just think about that occasionally while you’re watching them, and both productions will acquire an extra layer of poignancy.

The Grapes of Wrath, A Noise Within 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. In repertory with two other productions. This Saturday 2 and 8 pm, this Sunday 2 pm. Also March 24 2 and 7 pm, April 11-12 8 pm, April 20 8 pm, April 21 2 pm, May 3 8 pm, May 11 2 pm and 8 pm. 626-356-3100.


Oklahoma!, Carpenter Center, Cal State Long Beach, 6200 E. Atherton St., Long Beach. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes March 3. 562-856-1999 x 4.

I was surprised to hear a reference to The Grapes of Wrath in another show I saw last weekend — Casa 0101’s revival of Luis Valdez’s I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges.

Two married Mexican American LA actors, Connie and Buddy, return to their suburban home after auditioning for roles as a maid and a gardener, respectively. They’re dressed in the shabby outfits that they wore to look the part.  Unexpectedly, they discover that their precocious teenage offspring Sonny has shown up at the house while they were gone.  They had thought he was in school at Harvard. Looking at their outfits, Sonny remarks, “What’s this? The Grapes of Wrath — in Spanish?”

Carmelita Maldonado, Alex Valdivia, Elizabeth Pan and Daniel E. Mora in Casa 0101 Theater’s production of “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges”

Of course, for decades now, Americans’ image of migrant farm workers has consisted primarily of Mexican Americans, not Anglos like the white Joads of Oklahoma. Sonny may not have been thinking about that when he made his remark; he seems to be more interested in taking digs at his parents’ careers playing stereotypes. But it’s typical of Valdez’s fascinating 1986 play that casual comments might explode in ways that weren’t necessarily intended.

In other words, this is a much more surprising play than you might think when you first start watching what appear to be its sitcom-like contours. You shouldn’t know these surprises in advance, but there are quite a few of them in the increasingly meta-theatrical second act.

Whatever you think of these surprises, Valdez and director Hector Rodriguez’s staging paint some vivid portraits of Chicano actors (Carmelita Maldonado, Daniel F. Mora) — who pose as poor in order to win respectable middle-class wages and amenities — and their brilliant son (Alex Valdivia), who seems determined to throw his parents’ middle-class “badges” back in their faces. Providing extra complications is Sonny’s new, older girlfriend (Elizabeth Pan), a Japanese American dancer.

I especially enjoyed seeing this play at a late matinee on Sunday that conflicted with most of the Oscars show. It’s always fun to see a play on Oscar night, not only because the theaters usually have ample room but also because attending them during the big ceremony at the Dolby makes a statement on behalf of LA theater, as opposed to Hollywood glitz. But this play was especially appropriate as a counterpoint to the Oscars, in that it demonstrates one of Hollywood’s perpetual problems — the limited range of roles available to Latino actors.

By the way, in her program note, Casa 0101 artistic director Josefina López points out that not enough has changed since the play opened in 1986 at LATC — “Ben Affleck thinks it’s okay to play a Latino in Argo! When do we get to play the leads in film?!”

Of course, the Oscar show is so long that I could see Stinking Badges at 5 pm and still get home in time to catch the last half-hour of the Oscar ceremony — when most of the highest-profile awards were handed out, including the best picture trophy to, yes, Affleck and the other producers of Argo.

I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges, Casa 0101, 2102 E. First St., Boyle Heights. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 5 pm. Closes March 10. 323-263-7684.


Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.