Director Daniel Fish’s production of OKLAHOMA! feels both familiar and surprising. Familiar in that the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1943 classic contains some of the most iconic tunes in the American musical theater songbook and established many of the composite elements that made up all future musicals. Surprising in that Fish’s vision for the musical, which won a 2019 Tony Award for Best Revival, brings the inherent darkness in the material to the forefront. Likewise, this OKLAHOMA! fully realizes the complexity of the narrative and the dimensionality of the characters.
While the entirety of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s text has been preserved in this production, this OKLAHOMA! allows audiences to experience the musical anew. The staging includes a seven-piece band, which allows the dialogue and the vocals to become the focal point. Likewise, Laura Jellinek’s set design is strikingly modern. For much of the production, the lights are blazing and bright allowing us to see the wooden picnic tables that comprise the sparse set, as well as the Bud Light cans littered throughout and the imposing rifles that flank either side of the stage. Terese Wadden’s costumes likewise incorporate modern dress. Instead of wearing frilly frocks, leading lady Lauren Williams makes her first appearance in a plaid button-down shirt and a pair of jeans.
The staging also experiments with form. For most of the show, the actors watch their counterparts onstage. And in contrast to moments of brightness, some scenes are performed in total darkness. In certain moments, we see the actors’ faces projected larger than life upstage. While I’m not sure that particular technique is rooted in any dramaturgical principle, the overall effect of the production design is one that’s not afraid to experiment.
Fish’s production is most striking in the way that it presents these nearly 80-year-old characters in a new light. With OKLAHOMA!, it can be easy to have the characters live in neat boxes: Curly McClain as the wholesome hero, Laurey Williams as the ingenue and leading lady, Ado Annie, Will Parker, and Ali Hakim as a slapstick trio, and Jud Fry as the predatory villain. But this production avoids having the characters fit so cleanly into these archetypes, even though not a word of the dialogue or lyrics has been changed.
Sean Grandillo’s Curly seems to take advantage of his well-liked status to excuse away his unkind behavior towards Jud. While Grandillo’s renditions of “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’” and “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” are relatively sunny, his Curly becomes far more menacing and interesting in the show’s darker moments. Likewise, Christopher Bannow’s Jud Fry isn’t aggressive or scary. Instead, Barrow’s character seems to be on a different wavelength from the others on stage. Bannow delivers all of his lines in a whisper-like tone and at a decidedly slower cadence than the other actors. He’s fumbling and awkward, clearly a real outlier within the community and unsure how to reconcile that otherness with his adoration for Laurey. His solo “Lonely Room” doesn’t seem creepy, but rather becomes a vehicle to showcase the pain he feels as an outsider.
As Ado Annie, Sis provides much needed comic relief and brings down the house with her rendition of “I Cain’t Say No.” Sis’s delivery also presents Ado Annie as a woman stepping into her power and her sexuality, rather than just as a character there to crack jokes. Hennessy Winkler provides a nice complement as Will Parker, and Hunter Hoffman, stepping into the role of Ali Hakim on opening night, finds the laughs without making the character into a caricature.
Perhaps the most interesting character arc in this OKLAHOMA! belongs to Laurey. Sasha Hutchings is a magnetic and masterful performer who compels you to watch her on the stage, and she explores all of Laurey’s dualities. She makes clear that Laurey wants her independence in a society that wants her to just go ahead and find a husband already. But Hutchings’s Laurey also has a latent desire for intimacy with a partner. In contrast to Ado Annie, who brings that desire front and center, Laurey expresses that desire through subtext. Laurey’s wants are there, but they live under the surface. Hutching’s line and song deliverie make that clear. In particular, Laurey and Curly’s duet “People Will Say We’re In Love” is an exercise in demonstrating that deep attraction both characters feel without ever saying it outright.The song can be purely sweet, but it feels more seductive in this production.
In terms of expressing unsaid desires, choreographer John Heginbotham reimagines the classic Dream Ballet as a solo piece for Gabrielle Hamilton. The Dream Ballet is the main piece of dance in this production, and like the rest of the staging, it’s decidedly modern. The dance indeed feels dreamlike, surreal, and decidedly erotic as Laurey must contend with her attraction to both Jud and Curly. Heginbotham draws on a range of influences for the choreography. It’s a bold and different idea for the Dream Ballet, but I’m not sure it all totally works in terms of moving along the narrative and telling the story of Laurey’s inner turmoil.
This is a striking and dark OKLAHOMA! that lays bare so many of the dark and complex elements that have been in the musical since it debuted in 1943. While OKLAHOMA! presents a vision of the American ideal and the building of a nation, this production underscores that all of that comes at a cost. While I won’t share the details, the dark and shocking ending reinforces that in a breathtaking manner. This production doesn’t take away from the joy and the laughs that are part and parcel to OKLAHOMA!, but it deepens the existing storylines about the cruel and conflicted decisions many of the characters make along the way.
The national tour of OKLAHOMA! Plays Broadway In Chicago’s CIBC Theatre through January 23. Tickets are $27-$98. Visit BroadwayInChicago.com.
Production Photos: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made