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BWW Review: Tony Award-winning Revival of RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S OKLAHOMA! Plays Nashville This Week

Critically Acclaimed Production Pays Homage to Musical Theater History

Oklahoma!
Sasha Hutchings and Sean Grandillo in Oklahoma!

Occupying a unique and rarified place in the canon of classic American musicals, Oklahoma! - the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical theater behemoth - is one of the seminal creations in all of contemporary theater, arguably the musical that has inspired and informed every work that has followed in the wake of its 1943 Broadway premiere. As the first work to issue from the collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Oklahoma! set the bar high and everything that has come after it has been, in some way, compared to the duo's musicalization of Lynn Riggs' 1931 play Green Grows the Lilacs, a homespun yarn about life in Indian Territory in 1906 that first introduced the characters of Laurey Williams, Curly McClain, Aunt Eller and others living there prior to Oklahoma statehood.

Oklahoma!
Barbara Walsh and Patrick Clanton

Debuting on Broadway during the height of World War II, the all-American appeal of Oklahoma! proved a potent draw for audiences (it played 2,212 performances in its original run) seeking escape from the rigors and tribulations of the real world at the time of war and has since gone on to be one of the most-produced titles in theater history. In its near-80 years of existence, Oklahoma! has been performed by just about every kind of theatrical troupe one might imagine and as a result anyone involved in or even remotely interested in musical theater has no doubt borne witness to countless conversations about its worth and popularity.

Make no mistake about it, Oklahoma! - no matter who you ask - is oftentimes a polarizing topic, its legions of fans and proponents countered by a seemingly equal number of detractors who scoff at its sentimentality and rather prim and proper storytelling, eschewing its historical role in the evolution of American musical theater (building upon the tradition set forth in 1927 by Show Boat - the musical based on Edna Ferber's best-selling novel, by Jerome Kern and Hammerstein - that created what is now known as "the book musical") and relegating it to a list of old-fashioned entertainments no longer in vogue among contemporary theater-goers.

Oklahoma!
Sasha Hutchings, Sean Grandillo and
Christopher Bannow

Yet perhaps at no time during its vaunted and venerated history has Oklahoma! been so polarizing as it has become now, thanks to the 2019 Broadway revival directed by Daniel Fish which is touring the provinces. Setting up shop on the expansive stage of Andrew Jackson Hall at Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, May 3, for an eight-performance run through Mother's Day, Fish's compelling vision for the timeless work has elicited more heated conversations and varied responses than one might expect from a 79-year-old warhorse of a musical.

Opening night in Music City ended with a standing ovation, but this new-fangled take on Oklahoma! isn't as uniformly crowd-pleasing as it was during its first run. Audiences nowadays will have to be convinced that it's worthy of their consideration and, perhaps more importantly, of their ticket-buying dollars.

Thus, for the next thousand words or so, it's my job - actually, it's my honor - to tell you that this Oklahoma! is a show for the ages. Thanks to the amazing vision of its director and his creative collaborators, new life has been breathed into the classic musical, bringing Oklahoma! right into the 21st century, maintaining its relevance for today's audiences without changing a word of Hammerstein's beloved libretto and ensuring that Rodgers' exquisitely lush score still packs an emotional wallop.

Oklahoma!
Hennessey Winkler, Sis and the national company
of Oklahoma!

Clearly, this production of Oklahoma! is provocative and probably not for the faint-hearted nor anyone else challenged by the idea of tinkering with what they expect from a show they've seen countless times (to be quite honest, I stopped counting at 25 the number of times I've seen Oklahoma! over the past 50 years, just in case you're wondering what my bona fides are that allow me to preach the musical gospel). Is it polarizing? Hell, yes! Will you love it? Maybe not as much as I do, but if you give yourself over to the experience and allow it to envelop you - then you're in for a particularly theatrical endeavor that will make you think! And frankly, that's why I go to the theater and, I hope, so do you.

When it opened at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre for its 75th anniversary, Oklahoma! was presented in the round, in a community hall setting, with chili and cornbread made during Act One, dished up for audience members during intermission, to give it a feeling akin to the box social that figures prominently in the show's second act. Now, outfitted to play proscenium theaters throughout the United States, a more conventional staging and scenic design unfortunately robs this production of some of that intimacy, while somehow managing to recreate a genuine sense of bon homie that pervades the theater, while establishing this show as something completely different from any prior production of Oklahoma!

Oklahoma!
Sasha Hutchings

The musical's setting remains centered around Claremore, Oklahoma, in the days before statehood, but with a cast clothed in modern-day Western wear (thanks to costume designer Terese Wadden) - lots of denim and cowboy hats, not unlike Nashville's Broadway on any given night of the week - there is a timelessness about Oklahoma! that allows for a more immediate and authentic sense of time and place. That, coupled with onstage musicians playing Rodgers' memorable score in a way that is redolent of the "Nashville Sound," makes this production even more at home at TPAC, evoking images and memories of some of country-and-western music's greatest artists. Kudos to conductor Andy Collopy, who also plays accordion and drums, and his fellow musicians for their extraordinary efforts.

On stage right and stage left, Laura Jellinek's scenic design (which is gorgeously lighted by designer Scott Zielinski) features dozens of shotguns on display to silently pay homage to the rough and tumble realities of life on the frontier, while above glittering strands of metallic fringe offer the feel of a county fair. The juxtaposition of the stage trappings (which includes long tables holding crockpots presumably filled with chili, ears of corn to be shucked and plenty of cans of Bud Light to be imbibed) pay heed to the current miasma of violence that could break out at the drop of a cowboy hat or the unintended insult directed toward one's horse or paramour.

And while Curly still paints a pretty picture of "a surrey with the fringe on the top" with ducks and chicks and geese scurrying up the aisles of Jackson Hall, there is an undercurrent of potentially deadly hijinks ensuing. Obviously, it's not the technicolor dreamworld of Oklahoma! that I remember from childhood (when the film version became the conduit for my decades-long love of musical theater), but it is a believable world, peopled by a beautifully diverse cast, where love can flourish and gunplay can erupt at any moment.

Oklahoma!
The national company of Oklahoma!

The overall impact is stunning. This is a theatrical undertaking that challenges every preconceived notion and every possible expectation to deliver something uniquely satisfying and enthralling.

As beloved as Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae (and every subsequent Laurey and Curly I've encountered over the years) remain to me as the leading players of Oklahoma!, the national touring cast are every bit as captivating and just as remarkable. Sasha Hutchings is a long, tall drink of water as Laurey, her stage presence proving as evocative as any actor previously seen in the role. Her Laurey is alluring and fiery, determined and intelligent - there's nothing of the simpering farmgirl about her; instead she is forthright and outspoken, even if she still longs to make Curly jealous by going to the social with Jud Fry. Similarly, Sean Grandillo somehow seems younger and leaner that some Curlys we've encountered, but none of those others could have possibly exuded more charm nor more raw sex appeal that he does as he strides onto the Williams farmplace, crooning "Oh, Whar a Beautiful Mornin'" to woo his intended and to outrageiously flirt with Aunt Eller (played with grit and wit by the luminous Barbara Walsh). Grandillo and Hutchings have onstage chemistry to spare and their playful banter seems somehow more loaded than we remember.

But when they come together in Act One to sing "People Will Say We're in Love" - which is my favorite tune from among the abundance of wonderful songs in the show's score - they create a moment so romantic, so thoroughly engaging, that I struggled to remain composed. Even now, as I recall that luxuriously romantic scene, tears well up in my eyes and I can recall their lovely rendition of one of the most romantic showtunes ever written.

Oklahoma!
Sis and Mitch Tebo

Perhaps most noteworthy about this production is its treatment of Jud Fry, the dastardly farm hand who engenders feelings of fear and disdain. In Christopher Bannow's capable hands, however, we see Jud differently and there are moments in which he becomes a more relatable character, leaving you to wonder (what with the palpable sexual tension between Bannow and Grandillo in the darkness of Jud's "lonely room," it's easy to consider that the misunderstood Jud might well be a closeted homosexual struggling to maintain the façade of a woman-hungry, wannabe lothario instead of the detestable miscreant we've always assumed him to be, as a way of surviving) why Jud is the way that he is. However, this take on Jud is not obvious. Rather, you have to read between the lines of his interactions with both Laurey and Curly, to hopefully gain some insight into one of musical theater's most inscrutable characters. However, seeing him from this perspective, makes "Pore Jud is Daid" and "Lonely Room" more poignant and even disconcerting.

Oklahoma!
Ugo Chukwu, Hannah Solow, Barbara Walsh
and Sis in
Oklahoma!

Even with all the serious underpinnings and dramatic overtones in the musical, there is still much levity to be found in the romantic triangle of Ado Annie Carnes, Will Parker and Persian peddlar man Ali Hakim. Played by Sis (one of the stars of TV's acclaimed Pose), Ado Annie is even naughtier and bawdier than ever before, but there is a winning personality and warm heart that makes her all the more watchable. Sis lends a fillip of insouciant style to her performance of "I Cain't Say No" which virtually stops the show. Hennessey Winkler is charming as all get out as Will Parker and his performance of "Kansas City" is one of musical theater's most delightful specialty numbers and it allows Winkler to claim the spotlight with spot-on storytelling appeal. Likewise, Benj Mirman shines in "It's A Scandal, It's an Outrage" that showcases his uniquely comedic abilities.

Oklahoma!
Gabrielle Hamilton and the company

John Heginbotham's choreography is far more organic and natural than Agnes DeMille's original, stylized choreography for the original production, although he retains some movement - particularly during Gabrielle Hamilton's beautifully athletic and graceful recreation of DeMille's dream ballet - that can be described no other way than "DeMillesque" in his reinterpretation. In one change from the original Oklahoma!, that dream ballet follows intermission rather than leading into it.

Oklahoma!
Sean Grandillo and Sasha Hutchings

Among the riches found in the musical score, "The Farmer and The Cowman" is raucously spirited and the performance of the show's title tune is as rousing as one could possibly hope for - it is, forever and always, one of musical theater's most emblematic anthems of hope and unfettered joy. However, be forwarned that its reprise is now far more potent and electrically charged than you have ever seen it, thanks to the startling revelations that transpire in a slightly rejiggered ending sequence during Laurey and Curley's wedding hoedown.

Here, gentle readers, is my final pitch - it comes to you from someone who loves Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! with every fiber of my being - this production is not without its faults, but they are miniscule in comparison to the absolutely thrilling reinterpretation of a classic musical that can astound you, delight you, transform you and transport you. Rest assured, you'll be talking about this Oklahoma! for a long time to come.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on the play Green Grows the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. Original choreography by Agnes DeMille. Directed by Daniel Fish. Choreographed by John Heginbotham. Musical direction by Andy Collopy. Presented by Broadway at TPAC. At Andrew Jackson Hall, Nashville. Through Sunday, May 8. For tickets, call (615) 782-4040. For further information, go to www.TPAC.org. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy



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