Of all the impressive feats director Daniel Fish pulls off in his gripping deconstruction of Oklahoma!, perhaps the most impressive is that he somehow manages not to destroy the romance at the heart of the show by de-romanticizing the musical.
This Tony-winning revival arrives at the Ahmanson Theater where it opened to a host of red flags on Thursday. According to a Know Before You Go email from the Center Theater Group, this modern performance will feature “actors of diverse races, backgrounds, sexualities, gender identities and religions in a company of storytellers who reflect the rich diversity of America.” .
Common practice today in the upper echelons of American theater, but someone’s nervous about something. The source of this fear becomes clear later in the email: “What was once seen as a nostalgic and romantic vision of an idealistic prairie community with a touch of conflict is now a provocative, somber and sexy commentary on America in the 21st century, dark and oppressive.” stories.”
Theatergoers, especially those with a fondness for Broadway’s golden age, can be militantly protective of classic American musicals. “Oklahoma!” is at the heart of this tradition. But this invigorating modern production isn’t trying to start a culture war. It just wants us to see the show with new eyes.
The 1943 musical, written by Richard Rodgers, who wrote the music, and Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the book and lyrics, represents a leap in the integration of story and song that began years earlier with Hammerstein’s collaboration with Jerome Kern on Show Boat” began.” The success of “Oklahoma!” helped solidify the rise of the book musical over witty revues, in which musical numbers could be passed from one show to another, so tenuous was their relationship to a larger plot.
Fred Zinnemann’s 1955 film, starring Gordon MacRae as Curly and Shirley Jones as Laurey, the stubborn young lovers determined not to reveal their feelings for each other, brought “Oklahoma!” and its brilliant Broadway craftsmanship to the masses. But more importantly, the vision of America that emanated from the big screen, with its glittering cornfields and folksy goodness and simplicity, was immediately incorporated into a nation’s self-esteem.
“Oklahoma!” is not just a musical, but a cornerstone of the American myth. The irony is that Hammerstein’s book, based on Lynn Rigg’s play Green Grow the Lilacs, does not shy away from showing the sordid downside and lawlessness of American life.
Sexual violence lurks in the background of the story. Laurey hides in the house most of the day to avoid contact with Jud, an employee on the farm she runs with Aunt Eller. Jud, a social misfit with a shady past, is obsessed with Laurey, who hears him pacing outside her window at night like a predator waiting to pounce on a meal it realizes isn’t available to anyone other competitors will ever taste.
Curly is the man Laurey can’t get out of her head, but her refusal to easily submit to his cocky affection keeps Jud’s hopes alive. Tensions between the men explode when she agrees to go to a dance with Jud. Threats are made, guns drawn, and the judiciary in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma, not yet a state but poised to become one, is fickle and sometimes bloody.
While it’s technically incorrect to say, as CTG’s email does, that “the revival differs radically from the original production without changing a word of the original lyrics,” Fish is in many ways closer than most to what what Hammerstein wrote, at least until the ending, which requires some finesse with the script.
The aim of Fish’s production is to make the musical drama audible to us in all its different registers. To this end, the characters speak to each other almost as if they are attending a meeting. Her words, delivered without undue distraction, take pride of place.
The actors are positioned on a stage set by Laura Jellinek that resembles a dilapidated community hall. The Oklahoma landscape in the background reveals no lush farmland, but arid, unyielding prairies.
Settlers on this non-edenian patch of earth must be tough and have stamina. It’s no surprise, then, that social interactions are rough and stumbling. Sex is the main obsession, leaving a festive atmosphere that is both highly charged and highly dangerous. There is nothing graceful about the mating rituals in these areas.
Fish maintains a Brechtian distance between actor and role. Played by Sean Grandillo with the guitar-wielding aplomb of a country and western recording star, Curly has the straightest hair. This is a minor hiatus, but winked at by a production with far more extravagant tricks up its sleeve.
By alienating the musical’s usual trappings, Fish changes how it even sounds. The parade of heavenly musical numbers is orchestrated and arranged by Daniel Kluger for 21st century sensibilities. The band, unobtrusive but visible towards the back of the set, glides effortlessly between softly traditional and starkly contemporary modes under the musical direction of Andy Collopy.
Sasha Hutchings, a black actor who plays Laurey and helps direct a multicultural company, breaks the monolithic whiteness of a musical that sings about the country without thinking too deeply about its complicated history. In both her singing and her acting, Hutchings brings a spirited power that doesn’t rule out fear, confusion, or frightened vulnerability.
At St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, where I first saw this revival, and then on Broadway, Ali Stroker played Ado Annie and won the 2019 Tony for Outstanding Performance – the first actress to use a wheelchair. Now the role of this lusty, free-roaming cartoon character is played by Sis, a black trans performer who infuses her acts with thunderous energy.
Torn between two possible husbands, Ali Hakim (Benj Mirman), the peddler who loves to play in the field, and Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler), the naive Swain who is determined to marry her, Sis’ Ado Annie bounces like a slippery pinball. When she confesses singing “I Cain’t Say No,” she’s not just cute. This Ado Annie means business.
Jud, the musical’s villain, is an outcast who has to work twice as hard to keep a roof over his head. Christopher Bannow captures the character’s all-encompassing loneliness. Sympathy is evoked without sentimentalizing a creep whose addiction to pre-digital porn might be the most touching aspect of his character. He suffers from not having anyone to love him. Unfortunately, the next steps he takes on his deranged path threaten rape and murder.
Fish directs the scene, which takes place in Jud’s hideout in the enveloping darkness. The power outage heightens the threat, but who is the villain in this confrontation between rivals for Laurey’s heart? Jud is obviously out of control, but Curly gruesomely plots suicide as a romantic solution to Jud’s woes.
The lights go out again in a later scene, in which all sympathy for Jud is extinguished. Nerves are even more strained at this point, not only because Laurey seems to be in danger, but also because of the horrific shots that went off the last time the lights were turned off.
Video projections are used sparingly to give us close-ups of characters in extremis. The production never wants us to get too comfortable with the progression of the show. In fact, Fish snatches any post-pause relaxation from us with a remastered dream ballet sequence that begins in heavy metal mode.
Not all of these daring directorial maneuvers are eloquent, and the Ahmanson’s large proscenium objectifies the production in a way that distances audiences and subjects the shows to a more distanced kind of scrutiny. I hated the dream ballet in New York and found it even less expressive in Los Angeles. (No fault of lead dancer Jordan Wynn, who follows aggressive choreography by John Heginbotham, which could be interpreted as an angry retaliation to Agnes de Mille’s groundbreaking performance.)
Barbara Walsh maintains Aunt Eller’s position as the soul of normality, even as normality is now viewed more critically, if not cynically. Her role in the modified ending, which emphasizes the bloodshed the characters hope to quickly put behind them, is perhaps the most frighteningly faithful feature of this revamped revival.
Some might prefer “Oklahoma!” the old-fashioned way. But for those open to exploring the haunting underside of a deviously complex musical, this production is bold and unabashedly alive.
A final word of warning to future theatergoers: you may never hum “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'” with the same lightheartedness again.
Where: Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA
When: 8 p.m Tuesday to Friday, Saturday 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. Ends Oct 16 (call for exceptions)
Tickets: $35-$150 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 972-4400 or centertheatregroup.org
Duration: 2 hours, 45 minutes, including a break
COVID protocol: Masks are required at all times. (Check website for changes.)
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-09-16/review-oklahoma-musical-daniel-fish-ahmanson-los-angeles Review: Daniel Fish’s brooding, deconstructed ‘Oklahoma!’ electrifies the Ahmanson