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BWW Review: OKLAHOMA! National Tour, DPAC

An invigorating reinvention of a classic


This is not your grandparents' OKLAHOMA. During intermission, I heard one woman ask another, "Is this the Oklahoma you remember?" and it's certainly not. If you've ever found the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic musical boring or problematic, then this is the revival for you because it turns the entire show on its head and reinvents it without ever changing a word.

The original OKLAHOMA first appeared on Broadway in 1943 and was based on the 1931 play GREEN GROW THE LILACS by Lynn Riggs. So by 2015, when director Daniel Fish's revival had its start, it was time for an update. After a workshop at Bard College and a 2018 run at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, OKLAHOMA had a Broadway run in 2019 at the unique Circle in the Square Theatre. I was lucky enough to be living in New York City at the time and saw the production, which was done in the round with the audience on three sides of the action, twice.

I was curious to see if they could successfully transfer such a unique staging to a tour, which would have to happen in traditional theaters rather than in the round. Of course, adjustments had to be made, but I was impressed by how much they managed to preserve. The production did lose some of its intimacy and intensity - and the cornbread and vegetarian chili served at intermission for free - but it maintained its overall vision. Most of the performers remain on stage throughout many of the numbers, even ones that their characters aren't in, stressing the idea of the community in which these events are playing out.

Oklahoma!The modernized but sparse scenic design by Laura Jellinek is similar to that of the Broadway production with its wooden tables, crockpots, and gun racks on the walls. The stage is made to feel smaller with wooden walls with doors in them, clearly defining the space. The design, not obscured by a curtain but left open for viewing as the audience comes into the theater at the beginning of the show, indicates that they are in for something a bit different.

The tour also has a strong but small ensemble cast, filled with beautifully diverse performers, including a trans actress. There are no updates to the text of the musical itself, but the staging is much more honest about the sinister undertones of the show than most productions have been. (This is, after all, a musical in which our lead sings a song to his romantic rival, suggesting that he hang himself.) It leads to some appropriately intense scenes that are utterly riveting and feel much weighter than in a traditional staging.

Oklahoma!The dream ballet at the top of Act 2 is perhaps the most apparent change to this production. Choreographed by John Hevinbotham, it is a contemporary dance rather than a ballet and perfectly captures the odd, dreamlike sensibility of the number. It is as shocking to the audience as the dream ballet would have been in the 1940s and still manages to hit the emotional beats of the scene without being such a literal interpretation. The single dancer, dressed in a shimmery t-shirt emblazoned with "Dream Baby Dream," is entrancing and perhaps even intimidating. We saw the alternate, Jordan Wynn, and she was phenomenal.

The rest of the design also updates this classic to modern times. The costumes by Terese Wadden are updated Western clothing with lots of cowboy boots, plaid, and chaps, and gorgeous dresses for the box social scenes. Scott Zielinski's lighting design is creative, utilizing color filters and darkness to create intensity. "Pore Jud is Daid," along with a few other scenes, happen in darkness, though it's not as effective in a large theater as it was at the Circle in the Square. What is compelling is using a live camera feed projection during the aforementioned number and the dream ballet to give us a close-up of the performers' faces.

Oklahoma!We can see a single tear slip down the cheek of Christopher Bannow as Jud while Curly encourages him to imagine his own funeral. Rather than the hulking, physically threatening Jud of older productions, this Jud is socially awkward and intimidating in a more chilling way. He's also more sympathetic - the staging encourages us to examine how his treatment by people like Curly may have contributed to the way he is - while never losing sight of how frightening his obsession with Laurey is. Bannow's incredible focus as he watched Curly and Laurey in the scenes he isn't in was a perfect touch.

As we reconsider Jud, we're forced to reconsider Curly as well. He plays the guitar as he sings in the more folky style of the new orchestrations and banters with Laurey. We saw understudy Hunter Hoffman, and he slid into the role seemingly effortlessly, oozing charm at every turn. And yet, in this production, it's harder to ignore the way he treats Jud recklessly and encourages violence, and ultimately is let off the hook for the murder of a man without a proper trial.

Sasha Hutchings, who was in the original Broadway cast of HAMILTON, is effervescent as Laurey, with stunning vocals and hypnotizing dancing. While she's coy and playful with Curly, she also makes it clear that she is genuinely afraid of Jud. Early in the show, Aunt Eller tells her, "You're crazy, youngin'," when she first expresses concerns about their hired hand. She spends the entire show trying to get those closest to her to understand her fears about Jud, and no one takes her seriously, only for her to be proven correct in the final scene. It's a chilling reminder that women are often not taken seriously when expressing fears about assault or harassment.

Oklahoma!The rest of the cast is excellent, from Barbara Walsh as Aunt Eller to Hennessy Winkler as Will. Benj Mirman nailed the comedy of the role of Ali Hakim, and Sis made an excellent, strong Ado Annie. While "I Cain't Say No" can sometimes come across as a young girl being manipulated into giving men what they want, this Ado Annie is a woman not afraid to seize what she desires.

In fair warning, this production (as with every version of OKLAHOMA) features sexual harassment, gun violence, and the mention of suicide. In this version, they are handled more seriously than they often have been before, with a more robust commentary on the culture of Oklahoma when it was a territory, the treatment of women's sexuality, and the American justice system. It turns the show's end from a triumphant moment to a chilling one about the miscarriage of justice that makes both the audience and Laurey question if it is indeed a happy ending. OKLAHOMA is undoubtedly the most exciting show to come to DPAC in a long time.

OKLAHOMA is at DPAC through April 3.

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

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