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Review: OKLAHOMA! Shakes Up Expectations at Benedum Center

This isn't the "Oklahoma!" you think it is.

Review: OKLAHOMA! Shakes Up Expectations at Benedum Center Almost no name in musical theatre creates more instinctive, deep-seated groans than Oklahoma! does. To the hater, it's everything wrong with musical theatre: songs about dumb landscapes and silly farmers, homoerotic cowboys, cornpone dialogue, quavering operatic voices and reheated schtick. And the haters aren't wrong: Oklahoma! is often just as corny as its reputation would suggest. But not this time.

In terms of the Big Five (R&H, Jerry Herman, Kander and Ebb, Lloyd Webber, Sondheim), the Mount Rushmore of musical theatre icons, Rodgers and Hammerstein tends to be my last pick. And of their most produced shows, Oklahoma! is my least favorite among those. But the 2019 Daniel Fish revival (sometimes known as Wokelahoma or F*cklahoma for its in your face, topical and libidinal approach) is the only cast recording of the show I carry on my phone with me. No matter what you think of it, you can't say a word against the country, rock and bluegrass reimagining of the legendary musical's score. That said, there were a surprising number of intermission walkouts at opening night, and it wasn't because of the bluegrass music.

There's no way around it: Daniel Fish's Oklahoma! is controversial by design. It's the most staid and traditional musical of its era (daring thought it was at the time), reimagined as full-on Charles L. Mee-style experimental theatre. It was scary. It was daring. It was topical. It was uncomfortable- often by design, occasionally not. And it caught probably half of the audience completely off guard, expecting rope tricks and cowboys doing hitch kicks and singing with vibratos wide enough to drive a surrey with a fringe on top through. This Oklahoma!, in a word, f-cks.

I don't want to give away too much here, because it's better to let yourself be surprised. Some of you reading it will love it. Some of you will hate it. But if I describe too much of what happens to make this show special, it will lose its power to shock. Let me be vague: some of the actors are playing at a neutral, deadpan two, and others at a manic, stylized musical comedy ten. Actors deliver their lines to the audience as often as to each other. Some scenes are performed in complete pitch darkness, while others are illuminated with close-up videography that resembles a TikTok live or a "ghost adventures" reality show. The dream ballet... happens. And it all comes to an end in a literal explosion of seriocomic gore. Really, it's a trip and must be seen to be believed.

Whether you wanted a more traditional production, or think director Fish didn't go far enough desecrating an old idol, the performances are pretty much impeccable. Sean Grandillo makes a great alt-country Curly, strumming his guitar and switching from a throaty growl to a keening falsetto with a touch of Hadestown about it. His counterpart, Sasha Hutchings of Hamilton on Disney+, is a force of nature as Laurey. Sometimes surly and sometimes sensual, she brings heat, fire and soul with a country-rock edge to her songs and completely upends the twittering soprano ingenue archetype. In fact, with her dangerously simmering sexuality, she embodies the character type we have come to expect from Jud Fry.

But in the hands of Christopher Bannow, Jud is something very different. Soft-spoken, intense, almost shy but with a threat behind him, this Jud isn't a sexy bad boy of the romance novel, Twilight movie kind you normally see. This Jud... I'm just gonna say it... this Jud is an incel. While most productions play his shed hideout, full of pornography, as a sensitive loner who isn't as in denial about his sexual needs as the buttoned-up townsfolk, here it's played not as testosterone and machismo and more like the thousands of young men shut up in their rooms with an endless string of Pornhub clips and violent fantasies slowly curdling them. It works more than it doesn't; Bannow's performance is nuanced, frightening and real. The trouble is that it is sometimes at odds with the way other characters talk about Jud: Laurey's monologue about how she fears Jud because he makes her feel physical urges, when given Hutchings's delivery and Bannow's performance, can only be interpreted as Laurey having an unapologetic rape fantasy about Jud molesting her.

Outside the main trio, the characters are mostly broader and more comic, though the performances here are still not what you'd expect. Actress and activist Sis rips into Ado Annie's songs and comic scenes with a righteous fury, nearly bringing the balcony down with her huge voice and presence on "I Cain't Say No." Hennessy Winkler delivers the most conventional, traditionally Oklahoma! performance in the lot, though in his skimpy, all-tattoos-all-the-time outfits he looks more like a parody of a hipster than a rootin-tootin bronco-buster.

Now here's the kicker: have you ever seen an Oklahoma! where Ali Hakim was possibly the best part? Benj Mirman sometimes feels like he's in a different play than everyone else. And he should; he's playing the outsider. But Ali Hakim has never quite been integrated seamlessly into most productions of the show, probably because the joke is either on him, or on the rest of the town. Most interpretations of Ali hinge on him being extremely borscht-belt Jewish, and since a Jew would be presumably less than welcome in those close-knit rural territory days, he styles himself as an "exotic" Persian but performs his dialogue and business with a heavy dose of New York Yiddish seasoning. That was probably funny, and not in the worst of tastes, in the 1940s. But it doesn't really play today without being either hackneyed ethnic humor, or just plain racist. Instead, Mirman and Fish have rejiggered the role to keep that same "not quite what he's assumed to be" character type without the Catskills baggage. Instead of a thinly-closeted Jew in the Wild West, Mirman plays Ali Hakim as an implicitly queer urbanite at odds with the alt-country world around him. He's a little bit fey, a little bit swish, but he isn't a caricature. His seduction of Ado Annie is played like a man who loves to flirt and is terrified when he's taken seriously. The throwaway joke at the end of the show, "Do you wanna marry Will too?" comes across more as good-natured teasing, and less like the thick-headed hillbilly humor it's often used for. The new interpretation (like Jud as well), doesn't always work, but it works more often than it doesn't, and is the closest I've ever come to seeing an Ali Hakim that implicitly works.

There's a lot that can be said about how this show or this production represents the rural culture as violent, conservative, insular, bigoted or even fascistic. And it's certainly implied: but there's ambiguity, like there will always be when a new interpretation is retrofitted onto old material. Is Jud the monster that he is (and this production makes it clear that he is) on his own, or because of macho men like Curly bullying the softer, gentler specimens? What happens when we take the law into our own hands... or when the law allows us to take our own justice? It's all so truly, terribly topical, but I won't pontificate on that. See the show. Sit through both acts even if your purist heart rebels against it. And THEN rave about it, or complain about it. But this will be one that you'll brag about seeing for years.

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Pittsburgh Cultural Trust announces tickets are on sale for Rock 'n Remember LIVE!, presented by Spotlight Productions, coming to the Benedum Center, 237 7th Street, Pittsburgh, PA, at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., on Saturday, June 3, 2023. 

From This Author - Greg Kerestan

A long-time BWW regular, Greg Kerestan is proud to join the staff of his favorite website. Greg is a graduate of Duquesne University and Seton Hill University, where he studied both theatre and Eng... (read more about this author)

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