Regional Reviews: Chicago
The production opens with the full cast on a brightly lit stage sitting at long tables intended for communal dining, and the cast remains onstage through most of the first act. It's a device other directors have usedperhaps to show the importance of community. Though it's an odd choice for a show that has long been lauded for its innovative choice of opening with a single actress on stage churning butter, so far so good. Oklahoma! certainly has among its themes the nature of community. But Fish drops that concept, along with many others, in the second act, blocking the scenes more or less consistently with past convention.
At other points, Fish changes the lighting from the harsh bright lighting at opening to a soft, rosy light, to admittedly comic effect when the romantic leads Laurey and Curly get sentimental. Funny enough, but done so infrequently (twice, if my memory serves) that it begins to confuse us as to what the conceptual playbook actually is. In one of those moments, Curly and the seven-piece onstage band start to interpret "People Will Say We're in Love" in a country-western style. Not a bad idea at allseems like this could be a more logical style for the characters than 1940s-era show music, but the idea is not carried forward beyond that. It would have been equally logical and effective for Ado Annie and Will Parker's numbers, filled with Hammerstein's vision of the pronunciation quirks of rural Americans of the time ("It ain't so much a question..." "All 'er nothin," etc.).
And if we're talking about musical genres appropriate to the setting and characters, what the heck is the deal with playing the "Dream Ballet" as a heavy metal piece, with the melodies barely recognizable as rendered by an electric guitar? Reduced to a solo dance (for what it's worth, beautifully done by Gabrielle Hamilton, repeating her performance from Fish's Broadway production), the ballet is moved from the end of Act I to the beginning of Act II, for reasons I can't imagine, and its value in advancing the storyanother element of the original production that has long been considered a landmarkis greatly obscured.
Then there's the matter of Jud. As played by the slender Christopher Bannow, with long greasy hair, he seems more like the sort of urban misfit we might see on an episode of "Law and Order SVU." Is that the intention? It could make sense to ask us to look at Jud as the sort of person we recognize but just want to avoid. It doesn't help, though, that Fish chooses to play Jud's most important scenesthe one where Curly visits him in the smokehouse and the Act II scene where Laurey fires himin complete darkness. Long scenesin complete darkness! And at one point, we're shown a giant video projection of Jud in closeup for quite a long time, to no obvious purpose. (And again, another production choice that is not used consistently throughout the show.)
Finally, Fish has somehow gotten permission to rewrite the closing (spoiler alert) by having Jud return after Laurey and Curly's wedding and invite Curly to shoot hima suicide of sorts. This ends with blood all over the newlyweds and Laurey in complete shock. Regardless of the change from the original scriptin which Jud attacks Curly with a knife and accidentally falls on itit's fair to say Hammerstein far too easily dismissed the death of a man in order to give the audience a happy ending. Is it fair, though, to change the authors' intentions so dramatically? And were we sufficiently prepared for this? (Not by the long crucial scenes performed in complete darkness!)
If there's anything we can call a unified approach to this revival/revisal, it's its lack of unity. It might be more appropriate to call it Variations on Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!. As such, there are pleasurable moments in the show. The tour's Laurey, Sasha Hutchings, is a sensational singer-actress and wins us over early on with her "Many a New Day." Her Curly, Sean Grandillo, has a slighter build than the John Raitt/Gordon McRae cowboy archetype we've come to associate with the role, but he has boyish good looks and could pass as a cowboy of the period. Grandillo's vocals aren't the booming baritone we usually get, but he has a folksinger/country-western style that gives us some enjoyable takes on "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and his other numbers. Barbara Walsh is a tough and dry Aunt Eller, even without an accent that would suggest she's from the plains.
Entertaining, too, is the Ado Annie of Sis, a black trans woman and activist who has appeared in the TV series "Pose." A self-described (in an October 2021 tweet) "plus-size" trans woman, she has a big voice and displays an aggressive sexuality that is certainly a fair take on the character. The shorter stature of her Will Parker, the trans man Hennessy Winkler, adds another level of physical humor. But while the broad burlesque of Sis's scenes works on its own terms, it's out of sorts with the darker aspects of Fish's staging.
Along with the casting of Sis and Winkler, the production is commendable for its diversity. Not only as a matter of fairness and inclusivity, but authenticity. According to a 1907 U.S. Census report, blacks were some 13% of the population of the "Indian Territories" that became part of the state of Oklahoma, and black performers should rightly be included in any Oklahoma! cast. If it doesn't look like America today (no Asian-Americans or Hispanic-Americans), it does look like the community of the story's time.
Classics like Oklahoma! can certainly be revitalized with interpretations that would not have been acceptable in the past. Trevor Nunn's 1998 staging was a more carnal Oklahoma! that still respected its authors' intentions and maintained the charm of the piece. But Fish's diffuse approach to the material is confusing and alienating, and makes it hard to come away with any new feelings about the piece. One can always find interpretations of any work of art, and there are certainly messages to be found in this production, but in this case it's more of an intellectual exercise than a visceral experience.
Rather than showing us new meaning and new reasons to return to Oklahoma!, Fish has highlighted the piece's flaws and reduced or eliminated its strengths. And is there really a need for such deconstruction of Oklahoma!? The source material is not Shaw or Shakespeare, and one could argue Hammerstein's script is no more than a very skillful and funny rom-com (albeit one complemented by some wonderful and timeless songs). I'd be more interested in seeing an Oklahoma! with JLO and Luke Wilson as Laurey and Curly than watching Fish's revival again.
Oklahoma! runs through January 23, 2022, at the CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago IL. For more information and tickets, visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com. For more information on the tour, visit