Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Almost everyone considering the development of musical theater agrees that when Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II unveiled Oklahoma! in 1943, there was a seismic shift in the form. Musicals before then were mostly silly stories of little consequence on which were draped big musical production numbers, specialty acts, and comedy bits, generally built around star performers to draw a crowd. No one left the theater mulling over a show's meanings, implications or revelations.
Then came Oklahoma!. Suddenly, songs and dance sequences were integrated into the narrative, advancing rather than stopping the story. The story itself was one thatfor its dayheld far more substance than the usual mix of romance and buffoonery. Its most elaborate dance piece was not a line of chorines tapping or kicking to beat the band, but a ballet used to reveal emotional conflict lurking within the show's heroine. And yet, Oklahoma! proved a musical could be not only swathed with meaning, but also funny and undeniably entertaining. Yes, othersShow Boat and Porgy and Bess, certainlyhad done similar things first, but Oklahoma! brought those innovations together in one smash-hit package, ushering in the Golden Age of the Broadway musical.
Fast forward to Bard College in 2015 when director Daniel Fish first offered his revisionist Oklahoma!. What were breakthroughs in the art form seventy-two years earlier had become tired tropes. Over the past decades the form had continued to change so that for many, Oklahoma! had become an obsolete museum piece. Added to that are plot lines that treat women as men's property and that celebrate Oklahoma's progression from territory to statehood without any mention that, as a territory, it had been set aside as a sovereign space for the country's indigenous nations, now to be further stripped and humiliated. These are aspects of our past that today we avoid acknowledging at our peril.
Fish found ways to use this very same playnot a word of the original text is alteredto illuminate harsh truths about our nation's past, and used the same melodic songs to reveal the ways in which flaws imbedded in the characters are linked inextricably to flaws in the premise of their country. We enter the theater and are confronted by Laura Jellinek's stunning set, a generic looking community hall, with stark lighting and nondescript sandy-beige walls.
The room is occupied by wooden tables and folding chairs, as if to host a town meeting, but glittering, brightly colored streamers hung from the ceiling attempt to make the bare space appear festive, hinting that a more celebratory event might be in store. The room also conveys an ominous feeling owing to the many firearmsI counted 118hanging from the walls. What kind of celebration calls for such a show of lethal force? On the rear wall we see in the distance one stark farmstead. Off in the left and rear corners we can make out two more, the right one barely visible, as if it might be the ghost of the ruggedly individual lives that planted themselves on the prairie.
Seven musicians take up their seats at the rear of this room, then, forgoing the overture, twelve actors file in, one, a cowhand, steps to the front, strums his guitar and sweetly sings the famous opening line to "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'": "There's a bright golden haze on the meadow." From this optimistic opening, cowhand Curly arrives at a farmstead to play romantic hide-and-seek with the winsome Laurey. They feign indifference, but it is clear to her Aunt Eller, the rest of the town, and the audience that an arc of white heat sparks between them. Curly's nemeses, hired hand Jud Fry, is also obsessed with Laurey, though without a whiff of subtlety to provide cover for his desires. Laurey's response to Jud is a mix of terror and fascination, complicating her feelings for Curly.
A second romantic triangle consists of Ado Annie, the girl who can't say "no," slow-witted but earnest cowhand Will Parker, freshly back from Kansas City with enough money to meet the price Annie's father has set for her hand, and Ali Hakim, a Persian peddler with an eye for whatever pleasure is at hand as he passes through the territory.
The wrangling among those characters pretty much is the plot, which, in 2021, would seem like so much fluff. Fish teases out undercurrents such as free will, sexual repression, toxic individualism, and casual violence that lurk just beneath the surface. The usual depiction of Jud as a villainous misfit tips the scale completely in favor of Curly. Fish balances this out a bit. Jud is still the darker character, but he appears more wounded than sinister. Aunt Eller remains a pillar of strength, but we can see that her strength resides not in moral rectitude but in hard scrabble experience. In the lively "The Farmer and the Cowman," this musical contest of wit and affrontery is usually framed as a winking nod to healthy competition, but here we understand that as high stakes, cutthroat business. And when a question of justice is raised in the shadow of the aborning state of Oklahoma, Fish's vision veers from a celebration of wholesome living and patriotism to reveal the hypocrisy and violence that are baked into this history.
Lest this sound too dark and didactic to constitute a great time at the theater, I promise you that this retooled Oklahoma! is a wonderfully entertaining show even as it raises important and difficult questions. For starters, there are the marvelous songs, presented beautifully with fresh arrangements of Rodgers' soaring melodies by Daniel Kruger, and crisp delivery that emphasizes the sublime simplicityand great humorin Hammerstein's lyrics. The sharp choreography by John Heginbotham is notable in Will's hoofing while expounding on the wonders of "Kansas City," a rollicking "The Farmer and the Cowman" hoedown, and the jaggedly electric "dream ballet." This visual manifestation of Laurey's conflicted and repressed feelings is here performed by a single soloist, the stunning Gabrielle Hamilton, who repeats her assignment from the Broadway production.
As in the Broadway staging, Fish cast the show with a mix of racial, gender, and body types, which, like Lin-Manuel Miranda's multi-racial casting of Hamilton, transports their behaviors and issues from a quaint frontier past to a more universal platform. Contemporary costume designs by Terese Wadden reenforce the currency of the themes, while the fact that today's western wear draws from the motifs of the wild westand cowboys still wear chaps to protect themselves on their mountsconnects these people seen today to the people they were 115 years ago.
The cast, one and all, are terrific. Sean Grandillo as Curly has a blend of fresh optimism and subdued sexiness that advance his appeal. His pleasing tenor delivers "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "Surrey with the Fringe on Top," and "People Will Say We're in Love" with an apt country twang. Sasha Hutchings is alluring as Laurey, a role she understudied during the Broadway run. She emits a fresh-faced nascent sexuality and conveys a stubborn pride that is at odds with her emotional and physical longings. Her smokey soprano is just right for "Many a New Day" and "Out of My Dreams", and her singingand dancingin "People Will Say We're in Love" is a showstopper.
Speaking of showstoppers, Sis, a transgender performer, raises the roof as Ado Annie, declaring "I Cain't Say No" as if it were a jubilant benediction, and milking hilarious irony from every word she utters, every lift of an eyebrow, or tilt of her neck. As Annie's long-suffering beau Will, Hennessey Winkler has dance licks, smooth voice, and comic aplomb to spare. Christopher Bannon shows keen awareness of the tortured feelings beneath Jud's unkempt surface. Sitting on stage watching the story unfold (as all the characters do through most of the show), his riveted focus on Laurey, the pangs she stirs in his heart are evident, and he lifts a soaring voice to rail against his life in a "Lonely Room." Broadway veteran Barbara Walsh is a flinty Aunt Eller, guardedly showing affection toward Laurey and Curly, but making clear that it is best not to cross her.
This revival of was originally performed as an arena-style staging at Bard College, then at St. Ann's Warehouse, a small theater in Brooklyn, before moving to one of Broadway's smallest theaters, the Circle in the Square. In the mammoth Orpheum, the same sense of intimacy cannot be achieved. I won't pretend that doesn't diminish the show's impact, but even on a vast proscenium stage, the production is thrilling to behold, and it lingers with the audience, both for its theatrical artistry and for the challenging light it casts upon our nation's history. It is a stunning achievement.
Oklahoma! runs through November 14, 2021, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $40.00 - $139.00. For ticket information, including availability of student and educator rush tickets call 612-339-7007 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit oklahomabroadway.com/tour.
Music: Richard Rodgers; Lyrics and Book: Oscar Hammerstein II; Director: Daniel Fish; Choreographer: John Heginbotham; Set Design: Laura Jellinek; Costume Design: Terese Wadden; Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski; Sound Design: Drew Levy; Projection Design: Joshua Thorson; Hair Design: Josh Marquette; Special Effects: Jeremy Chernick; Orchestrations and Arrangements: Daniel Kluger; Music Supervisor and Additional Vocal Arrangements: Nathan Koci; Music Director: Andy Collopy; Casting: Taylor Williams; Production Stage Manager: Andrew Bacigalupo; Music Coordinator: John Miller; Associate Director: Mikhaela Mahony
Cast: Christopher Bannow (Jud Fry), Ugo Chukwu (Cord Elam), Patrick Clanton (Mike), Sean Grandillo (Curly McLain), Gabrielle Hamilton (lead dancer), Sasha Hutchings (Laurey Williams), Benj Mirman (Ali Hakim), Sis (Ado Annie), Hannah Solow (Gertie Cummings), Mitch Tebo (Andrew Carnes), Barbara Walsh (Aunt Eller), Hennessy Winkler (Will Parker).