Is Ado Annie the key to a revisionist Oklahoma!?

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Tari Kelly as Ado Annie Carnes and Usman Ally as Ali Hakim in Oklahoma!
  • Ting Shen/Sun-Times Media
  • Tari Kelly as Ado Annie Carnes and Usman Ally as Ali Hakim in Oklahoma!
A few years ago we went to a local production of Oklahoma! that was billed as "revisionist." I sort of wish I hadn't known about that ahead of time, for I sat there looking for the curveball; instead of simply enjoying the show, I kept wondering when the revisionism was going to kick in. Walking to our car, I ran through the production trying to put my finger on what they'd done differently. True enough, it had none of the by-the-numbers fatigue of a Broadway classic remounted in one too many dinner theaters. The cast was small, nimble, and enthusiastic. But the size of the cast was obviously driven by necessity, not by anyone's daring rethinking of the show.

In the end I decided it had something to do with Ado Annie. I'm not sure whether I really believed that, but I was at least pretty certain that if a director wanted to set Oklahoma! on its ear, Ado Annie was a good place to start. My creative side took over, and by the time we reached our car I had a poem about Ado Annie almost completely worked out in my head.

On Wednesday night we'll be at the Lyric Opera watching its Oklahoma! The reviews have been a little mixed, but they've made it clear the Lyric set out to create an Oklahoma! in which every element was top-drawer, not one that rethought any of those elements. As for Ado Annie, Chris Jones in the Tribune said Tari Kelly's performance was "funny, fresh, musically adroit and light on its feet." Hedy Weiss in the Sun-Times called Kelly "high energy" and her Ado Annie "ever-willing." That's the gal America came to know and love when Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in 1943.

The musical was adapted by Oscar Hammerstein II from a 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs, by Lynn Riggs. Hammerstein followed the play closely except when he didn't, and Ado Annie was one of the occasions when he didn't. When the character first appears onstage in the play, here's how Riggs describes her:

"She is an unattractive, stupid-looking farm girl, with taffy-colored hair pulled back from a freckled face. Her dress is of red gingham, and very unbecoming."

This Ado Annie has dropped by Aunt Eller's place to ask Laurey for a ride to the party at the Pecks. Laurey hesitates, but then replies with no little malice: "Why, I'd jist love to have you, Ado Annie! You git yourself over here to supper all diked up and fancy, and I'll see that you got a way to go, all right. I'll put myself out!—[She has another brilliant idea, which amuses her very much.] Oh, and I'm gonna buy you sump'n so purty the fellows'll all fall over a wagon tongue a-looking' at you!"

In the play, Ado Annie serves as a sort of miserable creature who lets more important folk say what's on their minds, as some of us tend to do when when conversing with anyone negligible. Later in the play Aunt Eller says, "Looky here, Ado Annie Carnes. Don't you ever marry."

Ado Annie replies "self-consciously" (according to Rigg's instruction): "Gracious, who'd I marry?"

Aunt Eller doesn't care. She's just thinking out loud. "Don't you ever! I did. And look at me. [Half-seriously.] First yer man—he'll die—like mine did. Nen the baby—she'll die. The rest of yer younguns 'll grow up and marry and leave you, the way mine did. Nen you'll be all by yerself. Time you're old as me, you'll be settin' around, jist the way I am, 'th a wooden leg and a bald head, and a-rippin' up old floursacks to make yourself a pair of drawers out of."

Ado Annie's reply to this admission is an inane giggle.

But a little later Aunt Eller goes over the same ground with someone who matters to her, her niece Laurey. She speaks, Riggs tells us, "without-self-pity." Laurey's stuck on Curly, and Curly's in trouble, and Aunt Eller sets out to stiffen her spine:

"When yore Paw died, and laid there—it was my brother in his coffin, too. Oh, and they's lots more, Laurey! I couldn't tell you all. Yer Uncle Jack, the children, both of my sisters, my paw and maw. Troubles thick and fast, you got to put up with. My husband—yer Uncle Jack. When he died. 'D you know how? A crazy way to die. No use in it! He'd bought some hogs off Lem Slocum, and they turned out to be full of cholery—and all died. Jack walked over jist acrost the pasture to see Lem about it. Didn't show up and it got night. I tuck a lantern and went out to see. When I come to the worm fence, I found him, in a corner, all huddled down, all bloody from a gunshot. Laid there all doubled up—dead—in a patch of yeller daisies. Lem Slocum musta shot him. I didn't know who done it. All I knowed was—my husband was dead. Oh, lots of things happens to a womern. Sickness, being' pore and hungry even, bein' left alone in yer old age, bein' afraid to die—it all adds up. That's the way life is—cradle to grave. And you c'n stand it. They's one way. You got to be hearty. You got to be."

Turning Riggs's play into Oklahoma!, Hammerstein greatly condensed this sermon and took the particulars out of it. What happened to women now happens to "folks." What happened to her didn't happen.

AUNT ELLER: "At's all right, Laurey baby. If you cain't fergit, jist don't try to, honey. Oh, lots of things happen to folks. Sickness, er bein' pore and hungry even—bein' old and afeared to die. That's the way it is—cradle to grave. And you can stand it. They's one way. You gotta be hearty, you got to be. You cain't deserve the sweet and tender in life less'n you're tough."

What other changes did Hammerstein make? He changed the name of Laurey's morose and menacing suitor from Jeeter to Jud Fry and made him less menacing. Lem Slocum is gone; and the place that guarantees sickness, poverty, and hunger "cradle to grave" has become a place that provides "Flowers on the prairie where the June bugs zoom— / Plen'y of air and plen'y of room—/ Plen'y of room to swing a rope! /Plen'y of heart and plen'y of hope . . . "

And in Oklahoma!, Ado Annie enjoys a much bigger part and is played for laughs. Hammerstein set her in a romantic triangle with Will Parker, a bumbling cowpoke, and Ali Hakim, a slick but duplicitous peddler, made her fetching and high-spirited, and gave her the roundest heels in the Territory. "I'm jist a girl who cain't say no," sings Ado Annie, bringing down the house.

Ado Annie should never be a stupid-looking farm girl again; but if I wanted to mount an Oklahoma! that took chances, I'd try to go back to the darker hues of the play that inspired Hammerstein. and I'd think hard about Ado Annie. Maybe she's the one to get us there.

Ado Annie

I played Ado Annie in the high school show.
My folks sat in the second row
and I got all the laughs.
They wanted me for Laurey but that
would have been a lie!
Laurey! with her Curly
and his herd of cute ol' calfs
and his buzzards making circles in the sky.
Laurey belonged to the land
I had to leave or die.
So I met this Persian feller and got
a one-night stand.
But it was worth a try.
I played Ado Annie
and I got such a hand!
I was Ado Annie, but don't ya know,
I could of been
Jud Fry.

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