On Sunday September 18th I joined the crowd at the Ahmanson Theater to see the much talked about Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s, “Oklahoma!” Director, Daniel Fish has attempted to bring this show into contemporary times by dubbing this “An Oklahoma! For A New Generation.” This modernization has been met with two distinct responses; those who find it a masterful reinvention and those who find it a complete misfire. I found myself in the latter group.
The show curtain is up and the set is in full view as the audience enters the theater. A painted backdrop of bleak farmland with a barn and house off in the distance gives context to the setting. Onstage are five or six picnic tables and chairs, with iridescent streamers adorning the ceiling, evoking many a small town community hall. Blending seamlessly into the overall picture is a seven-piece orchestra. The scenic design by Laura Jellink, is rendered almost entirely in beige tones and feels as if little imagination and less money was spent on this important aspect of any show.
“Oklahoma!” is based on the 1930’s play “Green Grow The Lilacs,” written by Cherokee writer Lynn Riggs. Riggs set his work in 1900’s Indian Territory before the statehood of Oklahoma. Oscar Hammerstein lifted much of the dialogue and many of its characters directly from Riggs’ work. Therefore, the sets, costumes, props, vernacular, mannerisms and mores, all reflect exactly the time period. In modernizing “Oklahoma!” director Fish has forgotten to make clear what era he has placed his version of this classic tale.
The pedestrian costumes by Terese Wadden, are a nebulous cowboy style, while the music has been relegated to a 1960’s country bar band, until it slips into a grotesque grunge rock nightmare for the “Dream Ballet.” Particularly disconcerting, the 1900’s vernacular has been kept as is, which creates a disconnect that cannot be dismissed. Of course, that is, when you can hear the dialogue, as the sound is muddy and several of the actors throw away lines and or swallow their words. Much of the staging has the cast either facing away from the audience or saying their lines while seated at a far table disconnecting from each other and from the audience.
There is no sumptuous overture of the glorious music that makes “Oklahoma!” unforgettable, only the cast entering from two upstage doors in sullen silence and taking their seats around the tables. This entrance sets the tone for what is to come. Having all the actors onstage whether in the scene or not, is not a new concept. “Spring Awakening,” “Big River,” “Nicholas Nickleby” among others, used this trick to great effect. Here the actors wait their turn with no visible interest in the onstage action and no embodiment of their character. Unfortunately, they are too prominent to ignore.
Fish seems to think that a revival was needed to get to the darker undercurrent of the play. The jealousy between the conniving cowboy, Curly McClain and the nerdy psychotic farmhand, Judd Fry, who both pine for the lovely Laurey, is already in the story as written in 1930. Laurey’s underlying attraction to Judd might have been provocative had this Judd, as played by Christopher Bannow, exuded the alluring sexiness of a dangerous man, instead, he comes off as an ineffective degenerate. Curly, a surly Sean Grandillo, seems to be trying for a Hank Williams tribute band, complete with a guitar slung around his neck. By far the most accomplished performer in this production is the gifted triple threat Sasha Hutchings as the conflicted Laurey. She brings authenticity to her role that is not seen elsewhere onstage.
Director Fish has added dialogue in blackouts, close up noir camera work and disco lighting, which adds nothing but confusion and the feeling that he is trying too hard to be clever. The show would benefit from straightforward storytelling, a cast that can stay on pitch and a well choreographed and performed dream ballet.
A highlight of any production of “Oklahoma!” is the “Dream Ballet,” beginning with the iconic and innovative work of Agnes De Mille in 1942. Usually tribute is paid in remounted versions but here choreographer John Heginbotham, has made this a solo for dancer, Jordan Wynn. Interminably long, pointless and out of touch with the intentions of the play, this is a complete miss as is the anemic square dance.
arbra Walsh as Aunt Eller does the best she can with the awkward staging, as does Mitch Tebo as Andrew Carnes. Benj Mirman as the peddler, Ali Hakim, tries hard and so does Hennessy Winkler, as the besotted Will Parker. Unfortunately, their love interest, Ado Annie, as played by Sis, seems to be phoning in her performance. She tosses off her lines without mining the words for humor and her face appears to be a mask of indifference. It was hard to understand the rivalry of Hakim and Will for her affection.
The truncated ending with Curly shooting Judd dead was greeted by derisive laughter by some audience members and even more laughter when he arose to join in the final song. Laurey in her bloody wedding dress might be an apt metaphor for this “Oklahoma!”
In the hands of Director Fish, this revival has become steeped in controversy and while I, along with many others found it lacking, some thought it worthy of a standing ovation. You will only know if you see it for yourself. It runs at the Ahmanson through Oct. 16th.
Lighting Design was by Scott Zielinski and Sound Design was by Drew Levy. Additional cast members are: Ugo Chukwu as Cord Elam; Mauricio Lozano as Mike; and Hannah Solow as Gertie Cummings. The Orchestra members are: Conductor Andy Collopy, Dominic Lamorte, Rick Snell, Josh Kaler, Justin Hiltner, Olivia Briedenthal, Caleb Vaughn-Jones, and John Miller,
“Oklahoma!” continues at The Ahmanson Theatre through October 16, 2022. For more information and to purchase tickets, please click HERE.
For more information on the Ahmanson Theatre, please visit their website.
This article was edited on September 22, 2022
Written by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: L-R Barbara Walsh and Patrick Clanton in the national tour of “OKLAHOMA!” – Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade