Theater Review: OKLAHOMA! (National Tour)

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by Tony Frankel on September 17, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


This ain’t your mama’s Oklahoma! While Daniel Fish’s completely rethought and stripped-down production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 watershed musical comedy Oklahoma!, now at the 2000+-seat Ahmanson as part of a national tour, has moments which will provoke post-theater discussions, I can’t help but believe that something has been corrupted since the show opened Off-Broadway and then transferred to the 800-seat Circle-in-the-Square on Broadway.


The idea here is to take one of the greatest musicals of all time, and transform it into a statement with a contemporary patina about expansionism and whether the settling of a new territory into a state is such a great thing for those who don’t fit into the mindset of the  conquering white folk. To say this production is a headscratcher is an understatement. For not only are we left pondering the Hamilton-esque retelling for both it’s brilliance and its oddities, we are also left struggling to figure out what it all means. With a mixed-race cast, I think it means to convey the experience of the United State’s underbelly population within a white person’s gumptious framework, but for what reason? Here, it feels like another courageous but uneven attempt at contemporizing with political correctness a show which once belonged to our parents. (Opening soon on Broadway, and already slated for a national tour, is Diane Paulus’s version of the musical 1776 with mixed-race cast members that identify solely as female, transgender and nonbinary.) Overall, it feels like a college thesis project which gets high marks for invention, but not for execution.


To be fair, the portrayal of some individual characters works great in this context. As the rejected hired hand Jud Fry, Christopher Bannow offers a disquieting and poignant portrayal of the one not invited to the party. His is the crestfallen outsider who could at any moment lose it in an unsuspecting crowd — lumbering, creepy, unclear, and a loner from which we should steer clear. The shocking ending, which also seems dropped into the show, turns Laurey and Will into the kind of people that Jud is suspected to be. It’s an amazing turn, but since we have had nothing up until then indicating such a moment is possible, it feels unearned (although you will mull over the ending for some time.)


On the same side of the Indian Head nickel is 24-year-old Sis as the feller-loving Ado Annie. Mr. Fish’s vision could not be clearer here by casting a large black powerful trans actor who fearlessly and proudly struts the stage as an unapologetic sex-crazed prairie slut (wheelchair-bound Allie Stroker, who is white, won a Tony for the same role in the original production). Clearly the comically deadpan Sis won the audience’s heart (although I wish that Millennials would stop hootin’ and hollerin’ during the number — don’t make me get all Laurey and Curly on ya’!). It is with the baritone-voiced Sis that we see the possibility of the new-fangled idea of casting actors of all shapes, sizes, genders, and sexualities. (It’s a sad comment that new musicals such as Jagged Little Pill, an issue-crammed show which does use such actors, don’t hold a candle to Rodgers and Hammerstein. To me, Fish’s reclaiming of Oklahoma! says more about crappy new musicals than it does about defying tradition.)


The playing area is set up like a staged reading where actors sit at long tables delivering line-readings which go from intentionally flat to emotional; much of the dancing has been eliminated; an onstage band playing country-style behind the players replaces an orchestra; the chorus is deleted; and a dream ballet is turned into a solo dance at the top of Act II, in which a woman (Jordan Wynn) in a sequined, iridescent nightshirt that reads “Dream Baby Dream” interminably writhes, kicks, and runs (choreography by John Heginbotham). The latter sticks out because it seems plopped into the show with no emotional or narrative effect. And while this dance may have electrified at St. Ann’s Warehouse (a colleague of mine swears by its power at the tiny Brooklyn theater), here it feels like an insult to Agnes de Mille, the original choreographer of Oklahoma! [UPDATE Sep 20: It has come to my attention that Heginbotham’s dance is indeed based on de Mille’s original choreography, but that was unclear in this space.]


I am in no way a musical comedy purist, but the real triumph of the night remains in the hands of Rodgers & Hammerstein; the ecstatic melodies and very funny book with well-drawn characters remain. And the voices on stage here sell the songs big time: When Sean Grandillo as cocksure cowman and seemingly self-taught guitar player Curly sings, you will swoon.


I applaud Fish (and others who have directed so-called darker productions), but this should have been retooled for the national tour with a large cast and more dancing, but with the same band. In a large house, the startling revelations and fascinating choices get lost and look like cost-cutting measures, making the experiments veer dangerously close to pretentious, and causing us too much work as viewers. Almost every choice here could have been done in a large-scale show, including the casting of Sis and that exciting angry ending. Even the video cameras employed to heighten scenes with Jud might have worked. How I wish we could have seen a full-out production without the corniness (see my review of Lyric opera’s production) but with Fish’s vision. Lucky are they who saw the origin small production in-the-round, where actors are mere feet away from the six rows of attendees, and corn bread was served.


photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade


presented by Center Theatre Group
Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave.
ends on October 16, 2022
for tickets, call 213.972.4400 or visit CTG
tour continues; for dates and cities, visit OKLAHOMA! Broadway

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