Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II are Icons of the Broadway Musical, collaborating on five of the most well known golden age musicals: Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, The Sound of Music, and of course Oklahoma!. Oklahoma! was the duo’s first full collaboration, which premiered on Broadway in 1943 and won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1944. One might expect that a show nearly 80 years old might have little to offer a modern audience. One would be mistaken. If you want to teach a young person about the art of theatre show them the Classic film version of Oklahoma! (1955) and then take them to see this revival. Without altering a word of the text the show takes on new meaning, the staging and performances demonstrating the way choices made by directors and actors can greatly affect a production. It is a reminder of why great works should be restaged and reinterpreted. There are choices made by individuals that can uncover new meanings. The new version is darker particularly in the ending. But, the show also contains a lot of humor and has all those classic songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein. This may not be the show to take Grandma too, even if she loved the film version, but it should play well for younger audiences, including teenagers. I would hope the ending in particular would illustrate something to the younger generation. This revival of Oklahoma! breathes new life into an American classic by more accurately portraying the America of today.
This revival which launched on Broadway in 2019 is directed by Daniel Fish. Fish along with Projection Designer Joshua Thorson and special effects creator Jeremy Chernick are responsible for the most impactful elements of the production. Fish has created a seismic change in the tone of the show. It is still the story of two love triangles: Laurey and her two suitors, Curly the Cowboy and Jud the Farm hand, and Ado Annie and her Cowboy the mathematically challenged Will Parker and the peddler Ali Hakim, who will do whatever he can not to win her hand in marriage. The audience has no doubt who either will end up with. Curly and Laurey have a Sam and Diane thing going, or if you are not a child of the 80’s, a Benedict and Beatrice thing. Plus it’s clear that Jud would be a candidate for school shooter in our times. You don’t need Shakespeare or Cheers to show you that Ado Annie isn’t going to end up with the guy who desperately doesn’t want to be with her over the man who repeatedly spends his last cent to try and win her hand. One change Fish has made that worked and didn’t work was in the Dream ballet. It works in that it’s an interesting and absorbing dance routine done in this version by a single dancer wearing a shirt saying “Dream Baby Dream.” It doesn’t work in that in changing it from the cast acting out a dream to simply an individual interpretive dance it loses its meaning for those not familiar with the concept that this sequence is supposed to be happening after she uses the Egyptian smelling salts and is reflecting the confusion she is having over her feelings for Curly and her anxieties and fear of Jud. Another aspect which does still work with this sequence is the use of video projection. Again I don’t see how the uninitiated will be able to grasp the concept of the ballet as it’s presented but it does add a quality to the sequence that, while not forwarding the story as the ballet did in previous versions, is all the same compelling. The video projection technique is used in a couple of scenes, where they basically have someone with a night vision video camera recording and casting through a projector the action that is happening on the darkened stage. The special effect that creates an impact and visually illustrates the message of this new production comes towards the end, so I’ll leave you to experience that for yourselves.
The casting of the 2019 revival was notable for its inclusiveness. Ali Stroker famously became the first wheelchair user to win a Tony Award for her portrayal of Ado Annie. I was pleased to see the touring company kept the casting colorblind and also chose to cast Ado Annie with another nontraditional choice. In this production Ado Annie is played by Sis, a black Transgender actor, who frankly steals the show. Ado Annie’s most famous song is “I Can’t Say No” and Sis’ performance resulted in a standing ovation in the middle of Act I. The rest of the cast is cast without an eye towards race. It’s nice to see the Hamilton effect in action. Sean Grandillo does a nice job as Curly. At first I wasn’t sure, but it didn’t take long for me to be won over by his guitar wearing interpretation, and I thought he had good chemistry with Sasha Hutchings’ Laurey. The other stand out was Christopher Bannow as Jud. The choices made with this character led one to see him as creepier than other versions while at the same time adding a sense of sympathy as he came across less as sinister and more are someone with some mental health issues. Bannow did a nice job of conveying this to the audience. Also making his last actions in the musical more ambiguous adds to the shift in tone that resonates more with a modern audience.
Oklahoma! runs through Sunday November 14th at the Orpheum Theatre in Downtown Minneapolis for more information and to buy tickets go to https://hennepintheatretrust.org/events/oklahoma-broadway-tickets-minneapolis-mn-2021/