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BWW Review: Broadway's OKLAHOMA! Leaves the Audience Less Than OK!

Review: Broadway's OKLAHOMA! Leaves the Audience Less Than OK!

Broadway Dallas is bringing Daniel Fish’s production of OKLAHOMA! to town, and it is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Winspear Opera House May 31-June 12.

 

One of the most exciting and educational actions to take in life is to expand your horizons. To take prior knowledge and turn it into something new, furthering your own thought or exploring a new perspective, is a beautiful thing. This is especially true for art; originals are reinvented through new lenses, most of the time vastly different but still enjoyable. This was the case for many parts of Daniel Fish's production of OKLAHOMA!, but unfortunately not all of it.

Winspear Opera House is a gorgeous venue no matter what is on the stage, so walking in to see a bright, beautiful set was thrilling. The curtain was already lifted as lights illuminated a stage covered in mostly neutral tones, with a few contrasting colors sprinkled throughout. I noticed actors already on stage, sitting at the picnic tables. This was more informal than I had expected, but it made sense for this performance because it was meant to convey small town Oklahoma. The immediacy of seeing the actors in character and on stage was exciting, and it allowed me to feel like I was looking at an authentic, intimate setting where I could witness the characters' lives. Of course I couldn't help but notice the guns covering two of the walls, but since they were suspended, I wasn't too concerned at that moment. Kickstarting the action was the "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'" musical number, directed by Andy Collopy. Starting with this song set a feel-good, easygoing mood, yet that same mood wasn't present throughout the entire musical. The message of the song was almost too good to be true, foreshadowing the dark twists and turns that were to come.

Although the story wasn't told entirely in song, the musical numbers (music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) were what highlighted the characters' hopes, fears, and dark desires. This first became true when Curly sang "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" as he was trying to woo Laurey, and I must say, he wasn't only successful with Laurey...we all were wooed! The combination of Sean Grandillo's voice as Curly, his choreographed closeness to Sasha Hutchings as Laurey, and the deep, dim green light washing over the entire stage was steamy, and the entire audience was aware of it. Feeling like a cool glass of water was the next musical number, "Kansas City" by Hennessy Winkler as Will Parker. There was clapping, stamping, galloping, and Winkler hopping from table to table, once again suggesting this small town to be easygoing and happy. Soon after her counterpart's song, Ado Annie sings "I Cain't Say No" and gives the audience an understanding of what happens when a man talks "purty" to her. Sis's voice was powerful yet playful, and her performance as the flirty Ado Annie was one of the highlights of the show. Most of Act I was spent, maybe unintentionally but nonetheless, tricking the audience into thinking we were in for some small town drama and romance, but one musical number toward the end of the act made it clear that we were about to see something much darker than expected.

Directly contrasting the earlier hopeful and fun musical numbers, Grandillo's Curly and Christopher Bannow's Jud Fry sang "Pore Jud Is Daid" in complete darkness. The subject matter of the song is horrid in isolation, but this production took the grim nature of the song to the next level through a unique, and unnecessary, use of Scott Zielinski's directed light (or lack thereof) and Drew Levy's directed sound. In the darkness, Curly sings about Jud's capability to hang himself, and continues on to describe how extravagant his funeral would be. (Sidenote: I know mental health wasn't a wasn't a conversation at this time, but if we are exposing the dark foundations of this musical, why are we not faulting Curly for trying to convince Jud to end his own life? Um, red flag!) While the haunting voices of Grandillo and Bannow heavily hung in the air, a videographer was circling them and capturing their wide eyes and serious faces. The video projected over the farm country backdrop was Blair Witch Project-esque, truly feeling like a horror film. Joshua Thorson's projection design combined with Jeremy Chernick's special effects made for a unique and unforgettable experience, but they took an already dark subject and made it even darker, causing the audience to uncomfortably shift in their seats. In the midst of this frightening interaction between Curly and Jud, the first two gunshot sounds occurred. I am grateful to this production of OKLAHOMA! for their prop gun use warning on their website, program, and verbal warning prior to the show, but none of those warnings prepared me for the reality of the sounds we would hear. Not only this, but the first two shots occurred in the absence of light, allowing our imaginations, and fears, to take over. Multiple theater-goers in surrounding rows walked out immediately after the gunshots, and even more didn't return after intermission.

The start of Act II matched the confusing, grim mood of "Pore Jud Is Daid" only without the singing. Jordan Wynn took the stage in a Dream Baby Dream oversized t-shirt, galloping and gliding and grooving all around the stage. Wynn's movements were skillful, yet when the videographer made a return and this dream turned into a nightmare, I was ready to wake up. The folks who left the theater may have disliked this dream portion of the performance, but I am positive they would have been disgraced by the twisted ending of the story-Jud's death. Laurey's wedding to Curly brought the audience back to the happiness we were longing for, yet Jud's arrival, his kiss on Laurey's lips, and his gifting of a gun to Curly instantly evoked fear. This time the unnecessary darkness didn't stem from gunshot sounds or horror film videography; our horror was due to the splattered blood, covering the bride and groom from their heads to the bottoms of their torsos. At this moment I asked myself, Why? What is the purpose of portraying this gruesome death by firearm? I still don't have the answer. Daniel Fish aimed to expose the grim truths at the foundation of this story, and I can at least acknowledge that he was successful, despite his success being at the cost of our comfort.

Despite the forced grim nature of the production, there were many elements of this performance that should be celebrated, especially the skilled acting and singing. Sasha Hutchings as Laurey Williams and Sean Grandillo as Curly McLain played their roles well individually, and their chemistry was undeniable. I enjoyed watching their connection change from when Curly initially tried to woo Laurey to when they dueted "People Will Say We're in Love (Reprise)" in Act II. The third party in the unwilling love triangle, Christopher Bannow as Jud Fry, used anxious mannerisms and awkward social interactions to appropriately portray this outcast, I think misunderstood, character. The relationship between Ado Annie, played by the amazing Sis, and Will Parker, played by the energetic Hennessy Winkler, took a long time to solidify, with some help from Benj Mirman's silly peddler, Ali Hakim. I must say, watching this less intense love triangle was fun thanks to the moments of foolery and hilarity, yet I was glad when Ado Annie and Will Parker were left as a twosome after Ali Hakim's passionate, "friend of the family" parting kiss. Cringy yet hilarious! In the spirit of cringing, the witchy cackle of Hannah Solow's Gertie Cummings is still ringing in my ears. Solow did a wonderful job making the audience wish she would be quiet. Two characters who brought laughs throughout the performance and disappointment at the end were Barbara Walsh's Aunt Eller and Mitch Tebo's Andrew Carnes. Walsh's wit and Tebo's fatherly toughness evoked many chuckles, however at the end of the performance their collaborative decision making was morally questionable, but both actors played these parts unbelievably well. In this same moment, Ugo Chukwu as Cord Elam was the voice of reason, bringing attention to the unjust actions being taken.

Although the focus of this performance was the underlying intentions of the characters, the tale couldn't have been told without the creative elements of costume and set. Terese Wadden's costume design was intentional and timely. In Act I, the characters, with the exception of Ado Annie's sassy and flirty outfit, had on what looked like everyday, small town Oklahoma attire-jeans, belts with big buckles, cowboy hats, long dresses, and even some chaps. Because of the social event and wedding in Act II, the costumes were more formal and colorful but still held true to small town Oklahoma style. I enjoyed looking at the different costumes and considering how they reflected the personalities of all characters. Similar to the costumes, the set was minimal but effective. The backdrop showed a beautiful, vast farmland with only a few houses on the land. It was neutral in color but bright and bold, serving as a reminder of where all of the craziness was taking place. The performance space didn't change much other than the removal of picnic tables; most of the scenic changes, designed by Laura Jellinek, took place through the use of props. I was impressed by the implementation of current day items like Bud Light cans and coolers, but my favorite props were the cobs of corn. It was a joy to hear Laurey, Aunt Eller, Ado Annie, and Gertie sing "Many a New Day" while viciously shucking the fallic corn, breaking it in half and tossing it into the trash can. Don't worry! Ali Hakim and Company returned the favor singing "It's a Scandal! It's a Outrage" as they cracked their beer cans, as manly men do. These moments where individuals came together in song, along with John Heginbotham's choreographed chaos throughout the performance, were impressively envisioned and executed, and they wouldn't have been possible without the music of the high-spirited band. They were visible on stage, positioning them as subtle yet noticeable characters as the drama unfolded throughout the performance. I always enjoy when the band is visible on stage.

There are many elements of Daniel Fish's revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA! that should be celebrated. With that in mind, there are also elements that cause undeniable discomfort and fear, especially among young people. The show is recommended for ages twelve and up, but I might even go as far to say it should be fifteen and up. There are references to sexual acts, occasional uses of profanity, and a blunt depiction of gun violence. I am a high school teacher, and I know my students hold fear in their hearts because of the cruel mass shootings that are frequently occurring in our community and country. They are more aware of what is going on than you probably think, and I have been there to answer their questions and try to reassure them that they are safe. Because of this perspective, I suggest taking into account your child's anxiety and fears prior to buying them a ticket to this show.

Walking out of the beautiful Winspear Opera House was a chilling experience (and not just because it was extremely cold in there!). There were many funny, sexy, romantic, and heartwarming moments throughout the performance, but the last image we were left with was a bride and groom covered in blood. I understand the intention of these artistic choices, but I don't agree with the implementation. I still recommend this performance because of how much I enjoyed those joyful, romantic moments; however, if you are uncomfortable with viewing any reenactment of gun violence, you shouldn't go see this production. Daniel Fish twisted the original OKLAHOMA! to unfortunately fit the dark reality of our current world, and because of that, I left the performance coated in confusion and grief. I wouldn't see it again, but I must admit, it was a spectacle.

Details:

Winspear Opera House May 31-June 12. Purchase tickets through the Broadway Dallas website. Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission. Recommended for ages 12 and up. Visit the tour website to learn more about the amazing Cast, Creative, and Producers.

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Prop Gun Use Warning (from printed program):

"In the wake of the recent tragedy in Uvalde, we want to make audiences aware of the deliberate use of guns in this production of Oklahoma!

  • Guns are fired 4 times during the show and are loudly amplified
  • The guns used and displayed on stage are all prop guns
  • No live ammunition is kept on site"

 



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