A question: Did the headline for this review shock or disgust you? Upset you? Feel disrespectful? Capture your attention? Make you laugh? Make you angry? Pique your curiosity about this production? All of the above?
Well, if you answered yes to any or all of these questions, then perhaps I have given you a taste of my own ambivalence. This show is genuinely radical, brilliantly conceived and executed, extremely disturbing, very entertaining, and difficult to classify.
What on earth was in the mind of director Daniel Fish when he decided not so much to stage a revival of “Oklahoma!” as to stage a powerful attack on this American classic, and everything it seems to stand for?
In an effort to understand this powerful work, I found myself asking what DOES “Oklahoma!” stand for in American culture? And my answer is this: This great musical is a typical American foundation myth. It celebrates ideals of rugged individualism, of the “taming” of the American West, of the basic goodness of American culture and mythology. It certainly acknowledges problems and complexities but it is, basically, a celebration of American optimism. Why would anybody object to THAT?
Well, in today’s world, there are a LOT of people who object to American optimism. For many, there doesn’t seem like there is that much to be optimistic about. From this perspective, one might note the persistence of racism and its continued pernicious effects. One might note the failure, overall, for the American government to have ever made good on promises to indigenous peoples, who continue to suffer under the effects of centuries of oprression. One might note that it would not be an exaggeration to say that, although it is not a majority view and is certainlly controversial, there is a growing class of public intellectuals, scholars, and ordinary thinkers who view the culture of America as being not that far removed from Nazi Germany. Indeed, there are those who might say that the equivalent of the fabled thousand year reich has been putting down deep roots in America for many generations, while we were looking the other way. And I haven’t even mentioned the growth of religious fascism, authoritarianism generally, condemnation of apparent outsiders, homophobia, transphobia and more.
Yes, I am describing a very “woke” view of America, and yes, I understand that this is hardly the majority view. But I think to understand a production like this current revival of “Oklahoma!” it is a necessary perspective to understand.
So what am implying? From the sort of woke perspective that America is emphatically not what it usually claims to be, the traditional view of an American classic like “Oklahoma!” is, well, problematical. From this perspective, “Oklahoma!” and similar American myths are as dangerous to celebrate as Leni Riefenstahl’s brilliant and inspiring Nazi propaganda film, “Triumph of the Will.”
If you believed that the myth-making celebratory vision of “Oklahoma!” is, in fact, a dangerous lie that functions as propaganda for a growing strain of fascism, how would you mount a revival?
You might take an approach like Fish’s: turning the whole myth inside out and exposing its very dark underbelly. If such an approach worked—if the text, examined in this way, revealed a meaningful shadow, you’d have something special, even unique, in the history of Broadway. Well, that’s what Fish attempted, and that’s where Fish succeeds.
This revival of “Oklahoma!” is fully justified by its impact and the fact that nothing that occurs in this production is beyond what is implied by the original script, once you go looking for it. The management assures us that not a word has been changed or omitted.
So here we have cowboys and ranchers who get drunk as skunks, pull out rifles and shoot each other at parties. Instead of the glorious traditional Broadway dancing of Agnes De Mille’s original choreography, you get sexually charged young men and women who dance (mostly) in a way to suggest a country western bar more than a ballet bar. You have a Curley whose treatment of Jud (whom he tries to seduce into committing suicide) is horrifying and indefensible. You get a Laurie who is genuinely confused and for damn good reason. You get an Ado Annie who is complex as well as charming, and certainly not naive. You get a Jud who is a victim of prejudice and hatred, not just a straight up villain. You get an Aunt Eller whose moral leadership is questionable. And so on.
It’s audacious, to say the least. To get away with it, the company has to be working at an incredibly high level of expertise. The acting, the staging, the singing, the dancing has to be so damn good that you never doubt for a moment that what is happening is the entirely intentional creation of consummate professionals On this count, the company is a rousing success.
As Curley and Laurey, Sean Grandillo and Sasha Hutchings are fantastic. Grandillo is a hugely charismatic triple threat. His Curley is charming, as he must be, but also, clearly stuck on himself, small-minded, and immature. Hutchings Laurey is not nearly so innocent as the part is usually played, because this Laurey is just too intelligent to play at brainless flirtation. And Hutchings singing does full justice to Rodgers soaring melodies. Even a diehard traditionalist would appreciate her performance, although they might not like the whole show.
As Ado Annie, transgender actor Sis is stunning. I fear I would sound patronizing with any attempt I might make to describe her extraordinary physicality, comic timing, and depth of characterization in the role. I don’t have the language to do it. But I can tell you this: you have to see her to believe her, and she WILL make a fan out of you.
The rest of the ensemble, and the musical team, are excellent. Especially, Christopher Bannow as Jud Fry. Every decision he makes in the part is unexpected, and they all work well. He is at once frightening and sympathetic, sexually seductive and threatening, and ultimately, tragically sad. Bannow is an exceptional singer as well, and his rendition of the art song “Lonely Room” is the most hauntng I have ever heard. It is such a difficult number, it is sometimes dispensed with. Bannow makes memories with it. Hennessy Winnkler as Will Parker is a hoot and a holler, as Will certainly should be. Barbara Walsh offers a complicated and always interesting Aunt Eller, and Benj Mirman hits the necessary comic notes for the “Persian” peddler, Ali Hakim.
Jordan Wynn does the impressive dancing for the Laurey’s famous ballet sequence, thoroughly reimagined from Agnes Demille’s original vision.
So, in summary: this is NOT “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Oklahoma!'”, advertising copy notwithstanding. It is Daniel Fish’s ‘Oklahoma’ — if you go, forget what you know about the original. This isn’t it. In fact, as far as undermining and distancing itself from the original show, when it comes to this version, like Kansas City, “they’ve gone about as fer as they can go.”
This is a production that will not please everybody. In fact, it is likely to please only a small minority. But it DID please the theatrical colleagues who awarded it a Tony for “best revival.”
Like it or not, this “Oklahoma!” represents the current direction of American theatre, commercial and otherwise. It is offered at the level of the highest artistry. Like it or not, I think it’s pretty damned exciting.
If you want a traditional “Oklahoma!” stay home and watch the movie. You’ll love it. If you want to see a production that will no doubt be remembered for decades as a major event in the American theatre, buy a ticket. But leave the kids with a sitter.
“Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!”continues at the Golden Gate Theatre through September 11, 2022. For further information, click here.
Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!” Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on the play, “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs. Original choreography: Agnes De Mille. Director: Daniel Fish. Scenic Design: Laura Jellinek. Costume Design: Terese Wadden. Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski. Sound Design: Drew Levy. Projection Design: Joshua Thorson. Special Effects: Jeremy Chernick. Music Director: Andy Collopy. Orchestrations and arrangements: Daniel Kluger. Music Supervisor and Additional Vocal Arrangements: Nathan Koci. Choreographer: John Heginbotham.
Curly McLain: Sean Grandillo. Aunt Eller: Barbara Walsh. Laurey Williams: Sasha Hutchings. Will Parker: Hennessy Winkler. Cord Elam: Ugo Chukwu. Jud Fry: Christopher Bannow. Ado Annie: Sis. Ali Hakim: Benj Mirman. Gertie Cummings: Hannah Solow. Andrew Carnes: Mitch Tebo. Mike: Mauricio Lozano. Lead Daner: Jordan Wynn.
Conductor/Accordion/Drums: Andy Collopy. Associate Conductor/Upright Bass: Richard Duke, Dominic Lamorte. Mandolin/Electric Guitar: Rick Snell. Pedal Steel/Acoustic Guitar/Electric Guitar: Liz Faure, Jon Paul Ruggieri, Josh Kaler. Banjo: Justin Hiltner. Violin: Clare Armenante. Cello: Michael Graham.