REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
In Scene Two of Lynn Riggs’ play, Green Grow the Lilacs, farm girl Laurey Williams speaks passionately to her Aunt Eller about the ranch where she grew up:
If we ever had to leave this here place, Aunt Eller, I’d shore miss it. I like it. I like that thicket down by the branch whur the ‘possums live, don’t you? And the way we set around in the evenings in thrashin’ time, a-eatin’ mushmelons and singin’, and oh! lots of things! Runnin’ to the cellar in a storm, and them yeller trumpet tomaters even, you make jam out of, and the branch and the pond to skate on.
It was the poetry of Riggs’ words, which reflected his own years growing up in rural Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th century, that inspired Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein to adapt Riggs’ play for their landmark 1943 musical, retitled, first, Away We Go! and then, finally, Oklahoma!
In its own way, Riggs’ words were as poetic as Hammerstein’s lyrics in the first song in the musical version, in which cowboy Curly McLain sings,
There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,
There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,
The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,
An’ it looks like its climbin’ clear up to the sky.
In writing the lyrics to “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” Hammerstein was inspired by Riggs’ own poetic stage direction, which reads, It is a radiant summer morning several years ago, the kind of morning which, enveloping the shapes of earth – men, cattle in a meadow, blades of the young corn, streams – makes them seem to exist now for the first time, their images giving off a visible golden emanation that is partly true and partly a trick of imagination focussing to keep alive a loveliness that may pass away. To Hammerstein, it would have been a crime to render Riggs’ picturesque language inert by banishing it from the musical, so he incorporated the imagery into his lyrics.
The original play, which survived only 64 performances when it first appeared in 1931 at the Guild Theatre (now the August Wilson) on West 52nd Street near Broadway, is rarely seen today, but there is a precious opportunity to take in Riggs’ work – in a reverential production currently running at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon.
In his preface to his original script, Lynn Riggs stated that his intentions in writing the play were “solely to recapture in a kind of nostalgic glow the great range of mood which characterized the old folk songs and ballads I used to hear in my Oklahoma childhood.” Green Grow the Lilacs is described as a folk drama, but it can be argued that it is indeed as much a musical as its uptown descendant. The story is laced with traditional folk songs like “Whoopie Ti Yi Yo” (which was replaced by the aforementioned “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'”), “Down in the Valley,” and “Skip to My Lou.”
The title song, a lilting waltz of Irish origin, wasn’t first recorded until Tex Ritter, himself a member of the original cast, sang it for Capitol Records in 1945. When sung by Jeff Wiesen, who plays Curly to Melora Marshall’s Aunt Eller, it shows Riggs’ deep understanding of the passion our early settlers had for their folk traditions.
One of the songs sung in the original play is a satirical courting number, sung by Aunt Eller as Laurey puts liquid powder on Ado Annie’s face to hide her freckles. Titled “Sing Down, Hidery Down,” the number uses a similar melody to country music composer Merle Travis’s coal mining song, “Dark As a Dungeon.” If Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score hadn’t been so witty and graceful in transforming Riggs’ story to the musical theater world, it would have been considered an abomination to remove the soul of the picturesque folk songs from Riggs’ original work. But Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score was brilliant, and Oklahoma! has lived on to become a classic on its own.
Much of the story of Green Grow the Lilacs was retained when Oklahoma! was written. Curly, Laurey, Aunt Eller, and Ado Annie are still the main characters, but there were some noticeable changes. The hulking Jud Fry, the villainous hired hand who works on the Williams farm and has a lustful eye for Laurey, was called Jeeter in the original play, but was no less threatening. (Jeeter’s name was changed to Jud because of the long-running hit play Tobacco Road, whose main character was named Jeeter Lester.) Although Ali Hakim, the peddler, was also a character in the original, he was never given a name, while Will Parker (Ado Annie’s rope-spinning love interest) and Gertie Cummings (referred to in the play only in passing as “that ole Cummins girl”), barely warranted a mention in the original story and were never personified as characters at all.
As for Laurey and Curly, both were more earthy and natural than their R&H counterparts. Laurey, especially, was quite different. Far from the wispy farm girl of Oklahoma!, Laurey, as played by red-headed Willow Geer (granddaughter of Will Geer and Herta Ware and daughter of folk singer Peter Alsop), is hearty enough to be able to heft a shovel to protect herself from Jeeter’s lecherous advances. Laurey looks like she could survive in the wilderness if she had to, but is no less soft and vulnerable when she needs to be. Geer is superb and natural in the role, and even strums a little banjo-ukulele to Curly’s songs as well as singing “The Miner Boy,” accompanied by Marshall (as Aunt Eller) on an autoharp.
It is important that all the major cast members sing and/or play a musical instrument, to show how integral songs were in the lives of the characters. The vaunted box social in Oklahoma! is instead described as a “play-party” in Green Grow the Lilacs. There is no auction of lunch baskets, but there is a candy pull and square dancing, typical recreational activities in the 19th century. The original play also dramatizes the “shivoree,” a noisy, mock serenade for newlyweds that was excised for the musical version.
The colorful language, spoken in appropriate dialect for the period, is engaging and charming, beginning with Aunt Eller’s description of Curly as being “so bowlegged he couldn’t stop a pig in the road.” Melora Marshall delivers a fully fleshed-out performance as the widowed spinster, who speaks movingly of the death of her husband in the story. In the play, Aunt Eller is as noble a literary figure as Ma Joad in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, her life fraught with tragedy and regret, yet who soldiers on because, as she tells Laurey, shaking her fist at adversity: “ya got to be hearty!”
Jeff Wiesen is a far cry from Gordon MacRae or even Alfred Drake, who turned Curly into a booming Broadway baritone, but he’s a lot more believable as the charming cowboy who is too shy to admit his true feelings for Laurey. Wiesen is charismatic, yet rough around the edges, and sings well, accompanying himself capably on guitar.
Zachary Davidson is the peddler (described as Syrian instead of Persian), whose clothing is a lot more tattered than the sartorially mismatched film-flam man portrayed in the musical. The peddler’s purpose in the play is strictly as a traveling salesman of questionable integrity, who uses flattery to sell his wares, and although he is purported to having “wives in every state,” he makes no romantic designs on Ado Annie as he does in the musical.
Elizabeth Tobias plays Ado Annie as a homely, pig-tailed wallflower and has created a brilliant walk for her character, which resembles the herky-jerky gait of a stiff-legged penguin. Steven B. Green’s Jeeter Fry is a modernized Neanderthal, an uncouth social deviant who locks himself up in his dark smokehouse, where his lust for Laurey grows and festers. In place of “Pore Jud Is Daid,” Curly sings the American murder ballad “Sam Hall,” which he uses to bait the menacing Jeeter.
The production is staged in the atmospherically rustic outdoor amphitheater at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. Characters enter scenes from the hill behind the stage, meandering their way down a winding trail, sometimes silent, and sometimes singing or chattering with one another, with crickets chirping an ethereal obbligato. In one highly effective scene, in which Curly and Laurey are declaring their love for one another, Aunt Eller can be seen sitting on the hill, quietly humming while strumming a guitar. This simple scene, presented with the utmost dignity and eloquence, is a beautiful summation of the role music played in the social relationships of American pioneer life.
The townsfolk in Green Grow the Lilacs play a variety of traditional instruments, including guitars, fiddles, washtub bass, washboard, jews harp, and bones, creating an enchanting, sepia-tinted soundtrack to accompany the story. Costume designer Randy Hozian and wardrobe supervisor Beth Glasner created the remarkably authentic period clothing for the cast. Director Ellen Geer, Willow’s mother, superbly pulls all of the elements together to bring Riggs’ original play alive in a loving, reverential way.
Musical theater fans owe themselves the pleasure of seeing this rarely seen classic of the American stage. You will never think of Oklahoma! in the same way after seeing Green Grow the Lilacs as it was meant to be presented.
Green Grow the Lilacs plays at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum through September 27. For tickets, visit www.theatricum.com