Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” is a staple of American musical theatre. But, the temptation to update a musical that debuted on Broadway in 1943 was too tempting. The result – the nontraditional version of “Oklahoma!” that hit Broadway in 2019 and is on a national tour that landed at the Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles this week – shows the myriad flaws in changing classics without retaining the charm. It may start with “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” but ends up a long, troubled evening.
Modern or Misbegotten?
At its simplest, “Oklahoma!” is about a farm girl, Laurey Williams (a magnetic Sasha Hutchings). She repeatedly resists the advances of a confident cowboy, Curly McLain (an annoyingly confident Sean Grandillo), and a social misfit farmworker named Jud Fry (a creepy Christopher Bannow) in the titular area pre-statehood. There are other subplots and noteworthy characters, but nearly all deal with catching a mate.
Director Daniel Fish supposedly re-staged “Oklahoma!,” long considered a classic Americana period piece, to this nontraditional revival to appeal to modern audiences; however, the flaws wind up changing the mood. Rodgers’s music is, of course, indelible. The songs are the same, but little else. The original “Oklahoma!” ended with a murder and a trial too, but this version leaves viewers creeped out and daze, even if humming the songs on the way home.
One aspect that may bother purists is the casting, which is not as lily white or ballet corps thin. This is one change that works. The resulting “Oklahoma!” is more representative of America now than in the previous iterations. It is everything else – the staging, lighting, wardrobe, musical accompaniment, dancing, and guns that make this “Oklahoma!” uncomfortably different from its iconic origins.
Fish’s version strips the show and staging to bare essentials – good for the budget but less interesting on the eye. The only sense of farmland and wheat fields is the static backdrop. For the whole first act, picnic tables and chairs adorn the stage. There is a group of musicians in the back (instead of an orchestra in the pit), and most of the cast up front, shucking corn and drinking in between songs and bits of dialog.
The lighting in the modern-looking picnic setting is overly bright and flat. Then, there are places in the plot where all the lights are turned off – as if the audience needs their other senses dulled to better hear the creepy dialog spoken then!
The wardrobe is anachronistic. It is supposed to be “Oklahoma!” in the early 1900s. However, Laurey and other women are in jeans – which never would have happened even. Ado Annie (a fun Sis) is in a short jeans skirt. The attire on the men is not as jarringly out of place, but their hairstyles are. Curly has stick-straight hair in a long bowl cut reminiscent of John Denver (and Curly is carrying a guitar in many scenes emphasizing the similarity). Jud features long, greasy hair that right away conveys he is an outsider and probably the bad guy.
One renowned element in the original was Agnes de Mille’s stunning “Dream Ballet” sequence, along with her other choreography. Her work in “Oklahoma!” transformed musical theatre dance from a filler to a plot element. In her “Dream Ballet,” the choreography depicts Laurey’s tension in deciding between her two suitors. Fish’s version choreographed by John Higginbottom goes back to the filler fodder. Dancer Jordan Wynn wearing a “Dream Baby Dream” t-shirt does a largely
solo turn (versus a pas de trois). Viewers know it is a dream by the fog on stage as it starts and ends, and the shirt. The choreography, however, is more modern dance than ballet. Wynn is lovely in the dance number, but it does not tell any story and is superfluous. The other choreography is unmemorable or typical country or square dancing.
The number of rifles and guns on the “Oklahoma!” set is jarring. It may try to convey the lawlessness of the American West. Instead, it highlights the issues with gun violence in modern times. Performance Magazine notes that there are 114 guns on stage (in racks as well as hands). The production donated money to organizations dealing with gun violence or illegal weapons. However, if the set is supposed to be a picnic, why are the gun racks there anyway? Is the arsenal onstage intended to illustrate the pervasiveness of guns in America or just a means to say something about the characters assembled?
Additionally, before the opening “Oklahoma!” number, there is an announcement undoubtedly drafted since the shooting on Alec Baldwin’s “Rust” set last fall. It notes that weapons are fired during the show, but no actual ammunition is used, and everyone is trained on proper usage.
While the show has countless problems, the “Oklahoma!” cast rises above them:
- Hutchings is charming, coy, and captivating as Laurey.
- Grandillo’s Curly is plucky, even when not plucking a guitar. Yet, he never offers Laurey a reason to choose him other than singing about the “Surrey with a Fringe on Top” that is never shown.
- Bannow is sympathetic as he describes his life in “Lonely Room.” However, the only attraction he seems to offer Laurey is as a prop to annoy Curly. This loner does not present the temptation of a mesmerizing bad guy.
- Sis’ Ado Annie is a vibrant, scene stealer. She charms with her “I Cain’t Say No” singing and vamping, as well as taking everyone’s attention every time she takes center stage in “Oklahoma!”.
- Barbara Walsh is effective as the tough pioneer woman, Aunt Eller, trying to deal with her niece, Laurey, and her suitors.
For the curious about the flaws or those who love musical classics, even presented in nontraditional shows, the national tour of “Oklahoma!” will be at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles through Oct. 16, 2022. It will then be in Tempe, AZ.
Written by Dyanne Weiss
“Oklahoma!” Performance Sep. 15, 2022
Center Theatre Group
Performance Magazine: An Oklahoma! For a New Generation”
Photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, courtesy of Center Theatre Group. (Top) L-R: Sasha Hutchings and Sean Grandillo and (Inset) L-R: Sis and Mitch Tebo in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” playing at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre through Oct. 16, 2022.