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click to enlarge oklahoma-0520.jpg

Photo Courtesy of Doug Adamz

Stateward, Ho!: Members of the Adams family picnicking, circa 1907. Musician Doug Adamz's grandmother is seen as a young girl, wearing a sun bonnet, second row, fourth from the right.

Mountain Man

At this year's Mountain Play, a gritty, down-to-earth 'Oklahoma!' includes the rich family history of musician Doug Adamz

By David Templeton

Way up high on Marin County's poetry-inspiring Mt. Tamalpais, at a lavish press-a-palooza for the 2005 Mountain Play, the organizers provide a number of attractions to draw the collective attention: wine flows like a creek in midwinter; the food is embarrassingly plentiful; several actors from this year's show--Rodger's and Hammerstein's ever-popular Oklahoma!--mingle with reporters and theater critics; and Chaz Simonds (who plays Will Parker in the show) dazzles the midafternoon crowd with a series of rope tricks after the actors playing Curly, Laurey, Ado Annie and Jud Fry perform such show-stoppers as "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" and "People Will Say We're in Love."

On top of all this entertainment, there is a spectacular view across the bay, the bridge and the city beyond. For those of us who happen to look down, there is even a charismatic, 150-year-old tortoise to gawk at as it eats crunchy hunks of iceberg lettuce.

With so much going on, it's truly saying something that an ordinary picnic table with an enlarged pair of old photographs on display has become one of the party's most popular bedazzlements. Except for one 45-minute period when lunch is being served and Ado Annie tells us that whenever she sits on a cowboy's lap something inside of her snaps, there isn't a moment when the photo table doesn't have at least two or three people bending in to take a closer look.

At first glance, the pictures appear to be a cleverly weathered group of photos featuring the entire cast from some production of Oklahoma! There is clearly a Curly-type front and center. There's Laurey in her bonnet, young and unburdened. That surly-looking guy on the left is a Jud Fry if ever there was one. All the others, from the stern-faced matriarch to the been-there, done-that mule brought in from the barn for the photo shoot, look as if they stepped right off the stage of some gritty, dust-coated staging of Oklahoma!

In reality, the photos, believed to be taken around 1910, belong to Novato-based musician Doug Adamz. The Oklahomans staring out from the black-and-white panorama are Adamz's real-life ancestors, the very type of hardscrabble pioneers who inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein to tell their story.

"Those people could never have imagined, when that picture was originally taken, that a hundred years later people would be looking at them and saying, 'Hey, they look like the cast of a Broadway show!'" Adamz says with a laugh.

"It's really interesting to me that these people, who I know were real, who are my kin, have become icons in a way, just as the characters in Oklahoma! have become icons. They never knew they were icons or symbols or representations of a time and place, of course, the same way that my mom used to cook fried chicken and grits and okra and black-eyed peas, and we never realized that was Southern cooking--we just thought of it as dinner."

Adamz (formerly Doug Adams) and his band Bravo! serve up their own brand of home-cooked treat after every performance of Oklahoma!, performing appropriately folksy tunes as audience members make their way from Mt. Tam's Cushing Memorial Amphitheater and out to the parking lot and a herd of waiting shuttle buses.

Adamz, who once played Jud Fry in a school production of Oklahoma! back in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, appears to be genuinely tickled to be involved in such a major production as the Mountain Play, which, under the direction of James Dunn, will eschew the usual pastel colors and popcorn cartooniness of some renditions in favor of a starker, more historically grounded staging.

Dunn, in keeping with this down-to-earth approach, has even omitted the stage, instead incorporating a set made up of a barn and farmhouse built right into the ground by set designer Ken Rowland.

The outdoor amphitheater makes it possible to add another level of reality by being big enough to incorporate a number of large animals (Curly makes his entrance singing from atop his horse) along with a stage coach and an actual surrey, with that famous fringe on top.

Though not appearing in the actual show, Adamz and his band were invited to participate in order to add one more dimension of authenticity to the spectacle. Thus inspired, Doug Adamz and Bravo! have gone into the recording studio to produce a CD of appropriate tunes, all of which they'll be performing up on the mountain.

"These are a bunch of songs we've been doing for years," he explains, "some old classic fiddle tunes like 'Little Rabbit,' 'Cherokee Shuffle,' 'Soldier's Joy' and 'Whiskey before Breakfast,' and some Woody Guthrie tunes like 'Pretty Boy Floyd'--it fits in because it's about Oklahoma--and another one called 'The Lonesome Road,' which was used as a theme song in the movie The Grapes of Wrath, which begins in Oklahoma. Then we have a bunch of other folksy things to do. It can be a long wait to get on that bus, so we'll be there to help folks have a good time and stay in that Oklahoma spirit as they wait to leave the mountain."

Adamz's father was born in 1908 in Oklahoma, one year after the area won statehood, a major theme of the play.

His mother moved there as a young girl around 1911.

"I never lived there myself," he says, "because my parents had left Oklahoma before I was born, but I always knew that deep down, a lot of my family's roots were back in Oklahoma." That understanding grew as Adamz, now in his late 50s, got older. "In some ways," he says, "you don't get a real strong sense of who you are and what your heritage means to you until you've grown away from it. It didn't really strike me that I was connected personally to Oklahoma, more than just connected to it by ancestry, because I'd never lived there. But as I grew older, that connection became more powerful as I came to appreciate where my parents had come from and what my family, who were the classic pioneers, had gone through to make a home in Oklahoma. It takes a while to realize that who our parents were is part of who we are."

Much of Adamz's own music is inspired by tales his parents told about their own lives. "My dad had stories about working on the railroad, pounding stakes in the tracks and the changes that came when Route 66 came through," he says. "That's part of what my dad and mom left me: these really interesting, really small, really personal stories."

One of those stories inspired the twisted Christmas song "Uncle Johnny's Glass Eye," recorded a few years back by fellow Novato resident Dr. Elmo, of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" fame. It tells the story of a visiting uncle who does some very strange things with his glass eyeball.

"That's my dad's story," Adamz says proudly. "His uncle, my great Uncle Johnny, was the one who had the glass eye that he'd pop out and scare the kids with."Maybe it's not too late to incorporate something like that into this upcoming production of Oklahoma! Director Dunn is going for authenticity, after all. And Uncle Johnny, pre-glass eye, is surely one of the folks in that classic old photo.

"Oh, I don't know about putting the eye in the show," laughs Adamz. "Maybe I'll just have to sing about it after the show."

"Oklahoma!" runs Sundays, May 22-June 19 at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheater on Mt. Tamalpais. Free shuttles are available from Tamalpais High School and Manzanita Commuter Parking Lot in Mill Valley. 1pm; bring a picnic and plan to get there early (we recommend taking a shuttle up as early as 10am). $20-$30. 415.383.1100.

[ | Metroactive Central | ]

From the May 18-24, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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