Much has been said about director Daniel Fish’s radical reimagining of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! — now on tour at the Ahmanson Theatre through Sunday, October 16th. At the very least, most should be able to agree that it surprises audiences at every turn, bucking conventionality and lingering in the minds of those who see it long after the final bow. As much of a praiseworthy musical Oklahoma! was in 1943, even winning a special Pulitzer Prize, Fish’s version ensures that the country-western chronicle is now more representative of a more modern America with a diverse cast that, from a storyline standpoint, negotiates the recognizably venerable arcs with a newfound finesse that relies more on stripped-to-the-core rudiments than unnecessary frills. Theatregoers are free to come away with whether they adore it or not; however, one thing is for certain — it is absolutely worth a ticket to find out.
Here, despite the source material by Oscar Hammerstein II being unchanged — originally based on the 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs — some of the implications are decidedly altered. In line with the script are Richard Rodgers’s numbers, this time performed by a seven-piece, onstage band who, because of their appropriate-for-the-setting musical stylings (Daniel Kluger is orchestrator/arranger) and Terese Wadden’s costumes, coherently mix in with Laura Jellinek’s set. The unvarnished wood benches, festooned streamers, racks of guns, handheld mics and, overall, less ostentatious scenery, allow for a greater immersion into the lives of these simple characters with increasingly complex problems.
Although some may argue that a proscenium arch in lieu of an in-the-round presentation detracts from the intimacy of the contemporaneously cowboy affairs, such is not the case so long as audience members attempt to meet the production’s intentions halfway with their imaginations. What does diminish the audience’s connection, however, is seeing the characters passively seated, especially for the first few scenes — which curtails the energy — but this may be by design to guarantee the musical doesn’t peak too early.
The premise still centers around farmgirl Laurey Williams (Sasha Hutchings) who is caught in a romantic crossfire (over a box social) between the overconfident Curly McLain (Sean Grandillo) and the desperate Jud Fry (Christopher Bannow), a forlorn field hand whose understated expressions, in this rendition, amount to being less of an overblown antagonist and more of a figure whose aura, despite being somewhat reminiscent of an incel, reads more innocuously. The shocking outcome of this love triangle also heavily obfuscates the demarcation separating felonious intention and a temporary lapse in judgement. A major reason for why the correct mood is struck in the last moments is due to lighting designer Scott Zielinski whose well-timed dimmed lighting and sudden blackouts bring the Ahmanson Theatre to a suitably uncomfortable standstill during both acts. Complemented by the ingenious use of Joshua Thorson’s live video projections, attendees won’t be able to dispute the sense of foreboding around them.
Joining the leads is another triumvirate, but this one instead offers much-needed levity. The sassy Ado Annie Carnes (Sis) ping-pongs between requiting the affections of the unworldly, but still affable, Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler) and the more carefree peddler Ali Hakim (Benj Mirman). This trio of endearment yields its fair share of chuckles — a welcome counterbalance to the tense stakes evolving out of the primary conflict.
The hotly debated “Dream Ballet” sequence, symbolizing Laurey’s amorous dilemma, pares ostentatious maneuvers down to nakedly human sensibilities, underpinned by power chords and heavy bass, evoking a hypnotic stillness captured by the mind’s eye — an outside-the-box choice attributed to choreographer John Heginbotham. At the forefront of this surreal fifteen minutes is dancer Jordan Wynn who expressionistically traverses the stage, her disposition echoing her bodily manifestations, allowing the audience to take a moment to deliberate on the booming simplicity of it all.
Beyond the unique directorial decisions and staging, the performers warrant ample acclaim for making this Oklahoma!, which is admittedly a steep departure from the original, not only palatable but downright enjoyable. For instance, Sasha Hutchings makes for an inimitable Laurey who compels with a distinct rawness, astride both a fierceness and an emotional susceptibility, which radiates forth via her brilliant vocals in “Many a New Day” and an astounding a cappella rendition of “Out of My Dreams.”
Sean Grandillo, who often wears an acoustic guitar across his chest, is instrumental in getting the musical off to a surefire start as Curly with “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” In addition, his character has a sense of entitlement that comes through in his tête-à-têtes with Hutchings’s Laurey, which fascinatingly makes Curly an amoral personality. Curly’s rival, Jud, is a brooding individual whom crowds won’t be able to take their eyes off as he feels startlingly true to life as one who elicits discomfort but also pity. Christopher Bannow realizes the intricate role impeccably as the possibly misunderstood interloper in Laurey’s life, conveying a hauntingly powerful wistfulness in “Lonely Room.”
On the flip side, Hennessy Winkler and Benj Mirman earn roars of laughter with their competitive back-and-forth as Will and Ali, respectively, as does particularly Sis, whose Ado Annie, characterized by a ravenous appetite for the aforesaid men, becomes the musical’s comedic centerpiece. Sis, a Black trans performer, is so charismatic and disarming in channeling her persona’s coquettish aims that the audience immediately takes a shine to her. Another good-humored performance is given by Hannah Solow who nails Gertie Cummings’s unceasing laugh.
Lastly, Ado Annie’s father, Andrew Carnes, portrayed by Mitch Tebo, and Barbara Walsh’s Aunt Eller play a pivotal role in the aftermath of the closing scene. Tebo brings an earnest believability and Walsh is commendable as perhaps the strongest-of-mind character whose deadpan playfulness and steeliness keep the production grounded.
The core purpose of theatre, since the dawn of time, has been to stretch intransigent boundaries and present a narrative in such a way that challenges one’s perception insofar that it becomes a discussion topic and, before long, is liked or at the very least respected for the effect it’s had on the observer. Fish’s revival of Oklahoma! indisputably succeeds in doing that, pulling the beloved Golden Age musical into the 21st century, though maybe not without some expected clanging and rattling along the way. As eight Tony Award nominations can attest, the courageous attempt to do this is noteworthy and deserving of an evaluation devoid of corrosive biases going in.
Oklahoma! plays through Sunday, October 16th, at the Ahmanson Theatre. For more information about the musical, and/or to purchase tickets, please visit: centertheatregroup.org