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Home > Arts > REVIEW: <em>Oklahoma!</em> Retrospective: Reworking and Reviving a Classic Through Tone (Orpheum/Hennepin Theatre Trust)

REVIEW: Oklahoma! Retrospective: Reworking and Reviving a Classic Through Tone (Orpheum/Hennepin Theatre Trust)

The national touring company of Oklahoma! played the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota from November 9-14, 2021. Photo by Matt Murphy.

The national tour of Oklahoma! did not linger in town for too long. The Minnesota engagement was the formal launch of this tour, which sprouted from a famous (and Tony Award-winning) Broadway revival and promptly spent a while cooling its heels due to the pandemic. After a taste of little Minnesota cool weather, the touring company quickly packed its bags to a balmy Greenville, South Carolina – the first of three weeks and three cities in the American South, followed by a 1-month break and reopening in Pittsburgh in the new year.

With such a classic show as Oklahoma!, it’s worth asking “What does a revival bring?” Indeed, this is a revival that promised much – “stripped down to reveal the darker psychological truths at its core”, as the show’s billing went. As schools, theatres, directors, and dramaturges explore ways to make older shows current to today’s audiences, it’s worth revisiting this classic show and how the revival did (or did not) work.

Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II began their highly successful musical theatre partnership in the 1940s with the musical Oklahoma!  When it debuted on Broadway in 1943, the show was hailed as a breakthrough in musical form as well as a milestone in American musical theatre. Prior to its premiere, most musicals were known for very light storylines with songs not necessarily related to the story. Oklahoma! not only deeply anchors its songs, but also delved into new areas with a very plot-important dream ballet. The result was the first of Broadway’s megahits, playing for years on Broadway, touring around the world, and setting the trend for big Broadway musicals for the next thirty years.

This “feel good” musical has always had a more insidious side to it, however. Midway through the show, one of the key characters effectively confesses that he is a psychopathic killer with at least three murders to his credit. Daniel Fish’s direction of the revival grasps this sinister side tightly and makes it the center of this production.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Curley McLain (Shaun Grandillo) is a cowboy who is attracted to Laurey Williams (Sasha Hutchings), the niece of local farmer Aunt Eller (Barbara Walsh). Aunt Eller has a hired farm hand named Jud Fry (Christopher Bannow), who – this being a musical – is also attracted to Laurey, setting up the central love triangle. Supporting characters include Ali Hakim (Benj Mirman), a traveling peddler who has been romancing a local woman named Ado Annie (SIS), but not with the purest of intentions. Ado Annie also has another sweetheart named Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler), who has just returned from a rodeo to claim Ado Annie as his wife. 

Fish does not dwell on the oft-villainized Jud’s nature; instead, the show focuses on the shady parts of the other characters. Laurey, the female lead, finds herself both attracted to and repelled by Jud; when she chooses Curley in this production, it is not necessarily because she loves him, but because he is safer than Jud. The women in the community are abused by the men: their fathers determine who they will marry, they are used by men for sex, and young women participate in an auction where they strut the stage while men purportedly bid on their “picnic baskets”. Most importantly, this is very clearly an insider community and outsiders such as Jud or Ali Hakim are viewed with suspicion and hostility. 

Sasha Hutchings (as Laurey Williams) as the object of Sean Grandillo (as Curly McLain)’s desire. In the national touring production of Oklahoma!, not all is well with this. Photo by Matt Murphy.

Curley says his heart belongs to Laurie, but he seems drawn to Jud in ways that add an air of psychodrama. Curley does not report Jud to the authorities after he confesses to murdering an entire family. Instead, Curley tries to convince Jud to hang himself. When Jud refuses, Curley fails to stop this confessed killer from taking Laurey to a social gathering. Ultimately, Curley is shown to also be a murderer, and the welcoming farm folk are both sinister and fearful.

The amazing thing about director Daniel Fish’s creation of this alternative universe version of Oklahoma! is that it is done while retaining all of the original dialog and the beautiful and memorable songs of Oklahoma! (There is no libretto rewrite as in, say, the 2016 Paint Your Wagon production at the Ordway.) The different vision comes through instead via staging and casting, which in the originating St. Ann’s Warehouse show and its Broadway production at Circle in the Square incorporated a theatre-in-the-round staging.

Not all of this works in the touring version, which transfers the production to a more conventional proscenium. The scenes that were done in the dark were not compelling, and the darkness went on too long. The close-up video scenes were uncomfortable – probably the intent, but uncomfortable all the same. However, it was sheer genius for Fish to cast the actor SIS – a very large transgender actor – to play my most favorite character from the show, Ado Annie. The physical humor from this casting helps provide some of the lighter moments of this production, especially when SIS sang a very spiritual but humorous version of “I Cain’t Say No”.

Fish’s production tries to paint Jud as a sympathetic figure, but Jud just comes off as creepy. When he makes his murder confession it seemed like a scene out of the TV show Criminal Minds. Although his undoing may have been a crime, there is just a sense of relief when Jud is gone. The tragedy is that Jud is not killed for his deeds, but because he was an outsider and his evil nature was too appealing to others. Fish’s biggest achievement is at the end of the show where, without changing a word of dialogue, I suddenly felt I had been jettisoned to a Kafka-esque drama. Feisty Aunt Eller becomes a sinister controlling force and the blood splattered Curley and Laurie look like automatons, rather than loving newlyweds. 

The actors fit together like a well-melded ensemble, with strong performances by all. In addition to SIS, Hutchings’ Laurey also puts a different edge to the show where, rather than coming off as naïve, she appears as a woman who lacks the freedom to find better options.

The traditional barn or barnyard has been replaced by something more of the flavor of a church hall. Photo by Matt Murphy.

Scenic designer Laura Jellinek creates the feel of a workshop production. The set looks like a dining area in a church basement, with a notable addition: on both sides of the walls, there are racks with what appears to be at least 100 guns, constantly looming over the production. Instead of a pit orchestra, there are delightful bluegrass-sounding musicians at the back of the stage; except for a few exits and entrances, the band and cast all remain on the stage. This is not a set-up for big dance numbers, but it works great with the production’s scaled down musical numbers.

In the original production, Agnes De Mille choreographed the groundbreaking narrative dance known as the “Dream Ballet” for the 1943 production. In this production, Gabrielle Hamilton (part of the 2019 Broadway cast) brings to life the pain and horror in this dance.

This is not your grandparents’ version of a “feel good” Oklahoma! and it is unlikely to be a version shown at your local middle school. If you approach the show with an open mind, however, you will be challenged by the production’s study of the show’s disturbing nature. That is something worth paying a little for: a national production that both entertains and makes you think in ways that you can enjoy but didn’t expect. It certainly provides a lot of fodder for conversation after the show.

And you can still leave the theatre humming the show’s stunning musical score.


Bev Wolfe