The acclaimed Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! that debuted on Broadway in 1943, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 and a best film adaptation Oscar in 1955 has had a face lift. This time around, it’s certainly not the lush, classic musical your grandparents might have recognized, but a contemporary, sparse, radical, and even a bit aloof production by director Daniel Fish, which bagged a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical in 2019.
Fish transports us to 1906 Oklahoma, a year before the territory attained statehood, but which, thanks to Laura Jellinek’s updated, barebones scenic design, feels like any convivial beer hall or picnic rendezvous today. Except that there are lots of guns everywhere. The cast members, dressed in trendy clubwear and denim are constantly on stage, even if not involved in the scene, and go about their business of having a good time.
The story of farm girl Laurey Williams (Sasha Hutchings) and her courtship by two rival suitors, cowboy Curly McLain (Sean Grandillo) and the sinister farmhand, Jud Fry (Christopher Bannow), is superbly acted by a diverse cast in, this time in modern clothing and accompanied by a seven-piece Bluegrass band, complete with banjo and steel drum. Grandillo’s velvety voice opens the First Act with the unforgettable Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’, sweetening the ambiance and making the theater hum along before things turn dark.
“Oklahoma! was a trailblazer in many ways…So it’s only natural that it continues evolving in radical, but respectful ways, and reminding us that all our challenges are better handled when we are part of a united community.”
Even though the original text remains the same, Fish’s production is dramatically different. Spicy dialogues make us laugh and reflect on pertinent current themes like Native American land rights, climate change, xenophobia, toxic masculinity, and gun violence. Choreographer John Higginbotham also revamps famed modern dance choreographer Agnes de Mille’s Dream Ballet with a new version performed on one barefoot modern dancer wearing a sequined DREAM BABY DREAM t-shirt as an homage to the original piece. Worth noting are also the hilarious and electrifying performances by the romantic cowboy, Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler) and his flirtatious fiancée, Ado Annie (Sis), as well as the lighting design by Scott Zielinski which throw us into moments of total darkness when the theater lights are turned off and we are left with the intense dialogue of the two main rivals, their faces and shadows reflected on a giant screen.
Based on the Lynn Riggs‘ 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs, Oklahoma was a trailblazer in many ways — it was the first musical written by the duo, Rodgers and Hammerstein; the first to cast singers who could act, rather than actors who could sing; the first musical to have a complete original cast album by a major label; one of the first — if not the first — “narrative musicals,” which places a priority on telling a narrative – a story with a beginning, middle, and end. So it’s only natural that it continues evolving in radical, but respectful ways, and reminding us that all our challenges are better handled when we are part of a united community.
— Rosane Grimberg
Oklahoma! plays at the Ahmanson Theatre through October 16th. Get tickets HERE.