Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!
Oklahoma! is regarded as one of the first musicals to effectively incorporate story, song and dance, and also the first show to have a full length cast recording that featured the original cast, original chorus, and a full orchestra. It was also the first musical from the team of composer Richard Rodgers and bookwriter and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. The musical premiered on Broadway in 1943 and it focuses on the inhabitants of a territory in Oklahoma in 1906, which is on the brink of statehood. The plot centers on farm girl Laurey Williams (Sasha Hutchings) and the two rival suitors who are courting her, charming cowboy Curly McLain (Sean Grandillo) and the brooding farmhand Jud Fry (understudy Hunter Hoffman). There is also Ado Annie (Sis), a girl who finds it hard to say no to the men in town, so she also finds herself with two possible suitors, the likable Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler) and the shady traveling salesman Ali Hakim (Benj Mirman). Laurey's all-knowing Aunt Eller (Barbara Walsh) is always around to help keep the peace.
Directed by Daniel Fish, this Broadway revival production won the 2019 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical and was nominated for a total of eight Tony nominations. No dialogue or lyrics have been changed from the original script, yet the multi-racial cast provide an updated spin on this classic musical and the touring cast all do fairly well in their roles. Sean Grandillo and Sasha Hutchings are quite good as the bickering couple you know will end up together. Understudy Hunter Hoffman was excellent as the misunderstood Jud and this production made me sympathize with him more so than in earlier productions. While Ado Annie is made to be more sexually promiscuous than I've seen before, Sis makes us see that her Ado is in control of every decision she makes and won't let the men in her life tell her what to do. Hennessy Walker and Benj Mirman do wonderful work as Will and Ali, respectively, and, as Aunt Eller, Barbara Walsh is the no-nonsense, voice of reason.
However, while the casting decisions and tour cast are good, I can only imagine that what worked well in the small, in-the-round staging on Broadway to provide an intimacy and urgency to the action is lost in a traditional proscenium staging, and the actors can be very far from the audience in the 3,000 seat Gammage venue. While the casting of minorities and trans actors in some of the traditionally white roles in the musical provides a more updated take on the characters and some of Fish's directorial choices are daring, shocking, and work extremely well, there are just as many that are odd, jarring, or don't make any sense.
For example, the entire show takes place on a static set that resembles a large meeting hall, with wooden tables and chairs set up across the room, and crock pots and cans of Bud Light placed on the table tops. There are gun racks on the walls, metallic colored streamers span the width of the stage overhead, and the majority of the cast are on stage for the length of the show and often deliver their lines sitting down at one of the tables. For someone who has never seen this show before or doesn't know the plot, I have to imagine they might be lost numerous times as far as where the scenes were taking place. While having the cast as silent onlookers who are almost always watching the action of the other characters adds an interesting element to the show, it also adds confusion when there are supposed to be different locations in the plot, yet all of the action takes place in the one large meeting hall. Also, many times when the cast deliver their lines, they do so sitting down with minimal emotion which made me wonder if Fish doubted Hammerstein's dialogue or the situations in the plot.
There are two lengthy dialogue scenes played completely in darkness that first might make the audience wonder if something technically went wrong and, while I did find it interesting to see how those moments in the darkness put the focus on the words the characters speak, I truly don't believe that element would have been lost if it had been staged with the lights on where we could also focus on the actors' actions. While these moments may have been jolting, and drawn the audience into the plot in the small Broadway venue, they just seem pointless in a large cavernous theatre. The dream ballet in which Laurey encounters Curly and Jud, which was originally made famous by Agnes de Mille, here is choreographed by John Heginbotham as a solo modern dance piece. While I had no issue with the modern dance element, I do question if people who haven't seen the show before would have any idea what the dance represents, as Curly and Jud barely factor into the piece. Also, the majority of the well-known songs are sung in a slowed down fashion, with simpler folksy, bluegrass orchestrations, played by a small onstage band, often sapping the energy out of the show and making it seem like the cast is uninterested in what they are doing. There is an onstage microphone on a stand in the middle of the stage that some of the cast sing into during part of a song. Why do they only sing parts of the song into that one microphone? I have no idea. It's as if no one was in the rehearsal room to ask Fish what the point was of this and many other of his directorial decisions and choices.
What does work exceptionally well is Fish's ending, which (spoiler alert) has Jud no longer accidentally "falling" on his knife in the fight he and Curly have but instead has him giving Curly a gun as a wedding present, which Curly then shoots him with. Standing alongside Laurey in their blood-splattered wedding clothes (effective special effects work from Jeremy Chernick), Curly faces judgement for his actions. Having the trial scene, which is usually played fast and comical, drawn out and delivered almost in monotone, shows the culpability of the entire town to cover up what happened. When the cast then sing a reprise of the (usually upbeat and rousing) title song, it makes us wonder just how "OK" their lives in Oklahoma will truly be.
Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! runs through October 23, 2022 at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.asugammage.com or by call 480-965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit oklahomabroadway.com/tour/.
Director: Daniel Fish