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BWW Review: OKLAHOMA! at Orpheum Theatre

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Bare Bones Production Misses the Mark

Oklahoma!When you hear, "Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!", what do you think of? Catchy musical numbers? Hugh Jackman's star turn as Curly? Or maybe memories of a high school production that you saw or were a part of?

Those happy memories, suddenly, became even more treasured after seeing the re-imagined and frankly uninspired production that opened in Minneapolis this week. Following a successful run on Broadway, it garnered attention for a bare bones set and found the actors spending the majority of time on stage as the action took place around them. Knowing that the format would have to be altered to suit touring the county and have it be constrained by a proscenium, I was anxious to experience the production.

What was presented over nearly three hours (yes, three), Saturday Night at the orpheum Theatre was not a re-imagining in my eyes but a travesty. It became very apparent, very early on that director, Daniel Fish had taken Oklahoma!'s heart and soul and intended to strip it down to bare bones and try to reinvent how we, as the audience, saw the production. Unfortunately, his attempt to be experimental did not pay off.

From the moment you walk into the theatre, you are nearly blinded by the all ply wood set and bright white light that reflected and radiated from the stage. Unfortunately, that same lighting would encompass 95% of the entire show. With a lack of follow spots and very few lighting changes to speak of, the audience is left wondering at times where our focus should be at, at that moment. I heard many individuals around me discussing this at intermission. One gentleman summed it up well, "I like the music but I have no idea what is going on or who I am supposed to care about".

This is the biggest issue that arises within this production. The audience is left trying to guess what is happening, where the scenes are supposed to take place, and why we should care about these characters. There was no clear distinction of where the characters were. If there had been lighting changes or projections to give the audience a sense of where our eyes should focus, I feel that the engagement would have skyrocketed.

Although when the lighting designer decided to utilize projections, it felt out of place and almost like a film student who was trying to be edgy for the sake of being edgy. A particular moment that raised some eyebrows came when every light in the theatre was extinguished and we were left in the dark as Judd and Curly discuss Judd's home and how Curly thinks Judd should just off himself. The song that follows was accompanied by an extremely bizarre close up of the actors singing which ends with the two men's lips almost touching. It was an effective scene but it didn't fit the rest of the production. It seemed in that moment that this production wanted to be unique but wasn't willing to commit to that idea. Therefore the audience was left wondering, "What was that?".

If there was a glimmer of light (that wasn't shining from the rafters), it was Sis's portrayal of Ado Annie who brings down the house multiple times. Her rendition of, "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No" was just the pick me up that the audience needed to try to soldier on through the first act. Her comedic timing definitely made for entertaining theatre but sadly it was not enough to carry the rest of the production.

Those who made it through the first act, and there were many who did not as shown by some patrons walking out throughout the first act, were then greeted with the famous "dream sequence". What transpired during the first 15 minutes of the second act can only be described as obscene, in your face and uninspired. A solo dancer was seen throwing herself around the stage, licking her arms, and thrusting into midair. To some, modern dance entices but the audience that witnessed it on Saturday night had no interest, as was referenced by the subpar applause that the principle dancer received. In a show that had already tested its audience's endurance, this was a very poor choice on Fish's part. At least five patrons around me left midway through the sequence and they never returned.

To sum up the second act, there is one word: messy. Perhaps it was Daniel Fish's intention to throw the audience into a tissy of confusion because every sequence that followed was drawn out, lacked depth and kept me asking, "Why am I still sitting here?". Spoiler alert: When we are finally given the confrontation that we (who know the show) know has been building the whole show between Curly and Judd, we are given the most contrived and uncomfortable bout of silence to guide the characters to this place. By the time that Judd "gifts" Curly the gun, we can't wait for the trigger to be pulled so that we can escape the theatre.

Some may call opinions like this, unwarranted or scathing and some may not agree but I can say with certainty that this show will either resonate well with you or you will have similar feelings. Daniel Fish has crafted a show that will certainly have you on either end of the spectrum because in this case, there is not middle ground. In my case, I will say, "I'm just a guy who can say no (to another visit to Oklahoma!)"


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