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Review: Brilliant OKLAHOMA! at the Providence Performing Arts Center

This revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic breathes new life into the classic musical.

Review: Brilliant OKLAHOMA! at the Providence Performing Arts Center

Warning: this is not your traditional version of OKLAHOMA!, and good riddance. Without changing a word of the book or lyrics, director Daniel Fish has created a revival of the 1943 musical that highlights different aspects of the material simply by changing the tone in which scenes are presented. The story has always been one of a community banding together against an outsider, but that aspect of the show is usually buried in favor of the sunnier, romantic elements of the plot. Not so this time. While the show loses some of its oomph by no longer being presented in the round, as it was during its run on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre, there is still plenty to like even when presented in a traditional space like the Providence Performing Arts Center's.

From the moment one enters the PPAC auditorium, you can't help but notice how startlingly and brightly lit the stage is, festooned with party streamers, a simple backdrop and plain wooden floor, as well as walls full of gun racks on either side. Instead of scenery, there are picnic style tables throughout the stage, and props are kept to a bare minimum. The use of specific lighting choices and the occasional use of handicam closeups, projected onto the wall behind the stage, are put to spectacular effect throughout the show. These technical choices help pinpoint the darker aspects of the story. Meanwhile, the score is played by a small bluegrass band rather than a traditional orchestra, which stylistically compliments the production well.

Sean Grandillo plays the guitar-toting Curly with more coolness than outright swagger, and almost makes certain scenes, particularly those with Christopher Bannow as Jud Fry, all the more menacing. While Jud is often portrayed as a physically imposing, oafish character, not so here. Instead, Bannow's Jud is unassuming, with loose chin length hair and a quietly unkempt demeanor, having more in common with a modern day incel than the cartoonish antagonist of previous iterations. Without giving any spoilers, "Pore Jud is Daid" into "Lonely Room" is one of the most haunting theatrical sequences I've seen.

On Tuesday evening, Cameron Anika Hill, one of the understudies for the role, played Laurey (normally portrayed by Sasha Hutchings, an original Broadway cast member). Not a straightforward role by any means, she captures the wide array of emotions her character undergoes very well throughout the evening as she struggles to find her agency in the situation she finds herself in. Again, without providing any spoilers, Hill's last few minutes in the show are primal and disturbing, in the best possible way.

Alongside the more serious Laurey is the light-heared Ado Annie, played by Sis, who brings the perfect attitude as the girl who "cain't say no," imbuing her scenes with just the right spirit (even if her song's blocking felt meandering at points). She's a great foil to Hennessey Winkler's earnest Will Parker as well as Benj Mirman as the traveling salesman Ali Hakim. Together this trio provides much of the show's comic relief.

One of the biggest, non-traditional changes to this version of OKLAHOMA! is with the dream ballet. There is no lush orchestral score or graceful partnering moments here - instead, Jordan Wynn (filling in during the Tuesday evening show for Gabrielle Hamilton) arrives out of gigantic smoke clouds and screaming electric guitars. Wearing a long, shimmering t-shirt that reads "Dream Baby, Dream," Wynn performs the dance as a solo, more in line with modern dance than classical ballet. Here too, the combined use of music, movement, lighting, and the handicam again, so perfectly convey the tumultuous (and at times nightmarish) events playing out in Laurey's mind.

No matter your current opinion of OKLAHOMA! as a show, this revival is worth seeing. If you're not a fan of past iterations of the musical, you may be surprised by how much you enjoy this one (such was the case for me, before seeing this version in 2019). If you are already a fan, it's best to approach this new version with an open mind; the story and songs are still there, if a little less glossy than before.

OKLAHOMA! Is part of the Taco/The White Family Foundation Broadway Series and plays through Sunday, March 27. Tickets are on sale now at the PPAC Box Office, online at and by phone at 401.421.ARTS (2787). Tickets are $20 - $89; all ticket prices include a $4 per ticket restoration charge and are subject to change without notice. Box Office Hours are Monday through Friday, 10A - 5P; Saturday, 10A - 2P and two hours prior to curtain time(s) on performance days.

Pictured: The company of the national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA!. Photo: Matt Murphy - MurphyMade.

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From This Author - Erica Cataldi-Roberts

A life-long Rhode Islander, Erica has been an avid theatre-goer since being taken to children's shows at the Warwick Musical Theatre. She is also an academic librarian in Boston, an occasional ... (read more about this author)

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