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Review: OKLAHOMA at Ahmanson Theatre

Review: OKLAHOMA at Ahmanson Theatre

Los Angeles premiere of director Daniel Fish's revival plays through October 16, 2022

Review: OKLAHOMA at Ahmanson Theatre

It seems everybody is having one of two reactions to Director Daniel Fish's revival of OKLAHOMA! currently playing at the Ahmanson Theatre. Love it or hate it, if you can make it to the second act, something extraordinary does happen. A gorgeous dream ballet that was formerly located at the end of the first act, is now performed exquisitely by Jordan Wynn. And it expresses the emotional life and soul of the entire story.

That being said, I'm still on the fence about it all. So much of this update of Rodgers & Hammerstein's acclaimed 1943 musical in which a farm girl is courted by two rival suitors, works. But leaving behind the entire idealistic prairie fantasy for a provocative, gritty commentary on oppressive American history, is going to leave some audiences confused. Maybe even a little upset.

According to Todd S. Purdum, in his review for The Atlantic, Hammerstein, a consummate man of theater once said, "If sex is not at the core of a story, it's probably not worth telling."

In that vein, Fish has eviscerated nearly everything familiar minus the script, which has been left intact - pesky misogyny and all. The music (there's no overture and no chorus), set design, cast size (12 principal actors have replaced 23) and dance sequence have been honed down to the absolute barest minimum making sex the number one item on the menu.

The environment is filled with practically nothing. A slew of drab picnic tables and benches sit in front of a backdrop that looks more like Dorothy's Kansas replacing the traditionally more colorful costumes and scenery. Actors hover somewhere onstage at all times. Multiple scenes are performed in total darkness forcing the focus on intense dialogs. And the sultriness of Laurey Williams (Sasha Hutchings) is far more palpable. And again, it really works. Yet, there is something explicitly flat and underwhelming about the presentation. As it turns out, the Ahmanson may not have been the best stage to present it on.

One of the biggest challenges with this piece is that it needs proximity. The Ahmanson space is simply too large for a show this small. It doesn't play to the back of the house. There's so much intimacy to experience but the further away you sit, the more you lose. And the utter barrenness of the production eventually becomes exhausting.

The actors are extremely capable. Performances felt deeply authentic and real. But the lead characters in this revival, whether purposefully directed or not, Laurey, Curly McLain (Sean Grandillo) and Judd Fry (Christopher Bannow), even Aunt Eller (Barbara Walsh) now feel internally more confused while appearing externally laissez-faire. Although, Ado Annie (Sis), her would-be lover, Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler), and rival Ali Hakim (Benj Mirman) do manage to add amusing comic relief, especially Annie in her signature song, "I Can't Say No".

Overall, the revival is a heck of a lot more interesting than sitting through a depiction of the past that never really existed. The original was definitely far more suited to audiences that were focused on an "ideal" America and desperately in need of relief from a World War. Stripped as it is, this OKLAHOMA! looks and sounds and feels a lot more honest. I just wish it could have emitted more of that power from a distance.

OKLAHOMA!

MUSIC BY Richard Rodgers

BOOK AND LYRICS BY Oscar Hammerstein II

BASED ON THE PLAY GREEN GROW THE LILACS BY Lynn Riggs

ORIGINAL CHOREOGRAPHY BY Agnes De Mille

DIRECTED BY Daniel Fish

ORCHESTRATIONS & ARRANGEMENTS AND MUSIC SUPERVISION Daniel Kluger

CHOREOGRAPHY BY John Heginbotham

SCENIC DESIGN BY Laura Jellinek

COSTUME DESIGN BY Terese Wadden

LIGHTING DESIGN BY Scott Zielinski

SOUND DESIGN BY Drew Levy

PROJECTION DESIGN BY Joshua Thorson

MUSIC DIRECTION AND ADDITIONAL VOCAL ARRANGEMENTS Nathan Koci

CAST: Sean Grandillo, Barbara Walsh, Sasha Hutchings, Hennessy Winkler, Ugo Chukwu, Christopher Bannow, Sis, Benj Mirman, Hannah Solow, Mitch Tebo, Mauricio Lozano, Jordan Wynn

This production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA! was originally developed, produced, and premiered at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College (Jeanne Donovan Fisher, Chair; Leon Botstein, President; Gideon Lester, Artistic Director; Bob Bursey, Executive Director; Caleb Hammons, Senior Producer) in July 2015.

It was subsequently developed and produced by St. Ann's Warehouse and Eva Price at the Joseph S. and Diane H. Steinberg Theater, Brooklyn, NY, Fall 2018.

September 15, at 8 p.m. (Previews September 13 - 14, 2022) Through October 16, 2022

Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A., CA 90012

Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre Performance Days and Times:
• Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.
• Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.
• Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.
• No Monday performances
• Additional 2 p.m. performance on Thursday, October 13; no 6:30 p.m. performance on Sunday, October 16.

Run Time and Intermission: 2 hours and 45 minutes including one intermission

Ticket Prices: $35 - $150 (Ticket prices are subject to change.)
Tickets are available:
• Online at CenterTheatreGroup.org
• By calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at 213.972.4400
• In person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office at The Music Center Group Sales: 213.972.7231

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From This Author - Tracey Paleo

Tracey Paleo is a member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.  

... (read more about this author)

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