Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!
Oklahoma! opens with the ionic song "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," sung by cowboy Curly McLain (played at this performance by understudy Hunter Hoffman with a boyish swagger and smile). But in this production, he is not crossing the prairie overlooking "corn ... as high as an elephant's eye," but rather walking across the floor of a barn-like structure set up for a good ol' covered dish shindig (the entire production is performed on this simple set). He plucks out the ditty on a guitar with a small ensemble band behind him, as the entire cast of about a dozen look on, seeming to be sitting in a kind of limbo until it is their time to perform. The audience is slowly introduced to the small, tight-knit community, which includes the hard-to-get Laurey Williams (a lovely Sasha Hutchings) for whom Curly has a hankering. The story develops into a love triangle with two men competing for the affections of Laurey: Curly and outsider/hired hand Jud Fry (performed eerily and sung amazingly by Christopher Bannow).
Based on Lynn Riggs' Green Grow the Lilacs, with book by lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, the story and dialogue has not been altered. All of the glorious songs by Hammerstein and composer Richard Rodgers are still present, though stripped down in Daniel Kluger's orchestrations and arrangements. A small ensemble, led by music director Andy Collopy, performs onstage and gives the score a simple country/western sound with strong use of banjo and slide guitar to great effect. And as straight forward as the story seems to be, there is a lot more left up to audience interpretation.
The Broadway production of this Oklahoma! won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical under the direction of Daniel Fish. And, though it received wide acclaim for breaking new ground in the interpretation of this beloved musical, it left this reviewer befuddled and mostly unamused. Some will walk away from this production with a new appreciation of an old classic (while some, at this performance, walked away before the show was even over, possibly with either confusion or a bitter taste). Though the production sticks tight to the script, actions and characters do not always line up with what is being said. For example, Aunt Eller (the amazing Barbara Walsh) yells to Curly that he has scared her by making his presence known to her, even though she is looking directly at him across the stage when she says it.
The contributions of lighting design by Scott Zielinski and projection design by Joshua Thorson add to the confusion. Zielinski makes drastic changes through lighting moments with deep greens and reds that do not seem to help the plot. At times, the stage goes completely dark, leaving just the unemotional voices of the actors to say their lines. The scene for the song "Poor Jud is Daid" is one in which close-ups of the actors' faces in real time are projected on the back of the stage. At one point, Curly and Jud begin to move their faces closer to each other, giving the impression that they are just about to kiss. The video projections capture the actors in wide-eyed and crazy expressions. If that is the goal, success is achieved. Of the creatives, Laura Jellinek's Tony-nominated set is a stand-out. Her large, barn-like stage with several gun racks flanking the sides is an eerie predictor of what's to come.
One of the more ground-breaking dances associated with the musical is the brilliant work of Agnes De Mille's "Dream Ballet," interpreted here by choreographer John Heginbotham. It usually ends the first act; in this production it opens the second. And that is when the "Dream Ballet" turns into more of a nightmare. Instead of a dancer "twin" to represent Laurey (who has turned to smelling salts to help her decide to go to the box social with Curly or Jud), it is a single dancer (Gabrielle Hamilton) for most of the ballet, in a basic white shirt that reads "Dream Baby, Dream." She proceeds to move and convulse in an unnerving manner and does very little in storytelling, which is what more conventional productions have used the dance for–all to an out-of-the-blue heavy metal (and way too loud) version of the music.
There are also times when actors suddenly grab a microphone (after they had already been singing perfectly well without one) to sing part of their song. I am fine with actors singing with microphones, but if it happens randomly and without purpose in the story, it just leads to more confusion. There are other random moments. In the performance I witnessed, a stagehand came out onto the brightly lit stage while the show was still going on to remove a prop from a table. Couldn't an actor have removed it, or was there have been a better time to do so? More distraction and confusion.
There are some positive aspects that stand out. Two of the songs I have always liked the least became my favorites in this production, thanks in most part to the actors who perform them. The peddler, Ali Hakim (performed perfectly by Benj Mirman), has just been swindled into marrying the overly affectionate Ado Annie (an adequate Sis), and his rendition of "It's a Scandal! It's a Outrage!" is a delight. Likewise, Christopher Bannow's rendition of Jud Fry's "Lonely Room" left me in awe. I have always enjoyed the character of Will Parker, the cowboy who is trying to win the affections of Ado Annie, and I could not help but smile at the buffoonery of Hennessy Winkler's Will in a scene-stealing performance.
Some have nicknamed this production "Woke-lahoma!," and with proper cause. Not only did the original Broadway production have an actress in a wheelchair portraying Ado Annie (the amazingly talented Ali Stroker, who won a Tony Award for her performance), but the national tour company has at least two openly trans actors playing the parts of Ado Annie (Sis) and Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler), the latter to great effect. It was a welcome sight to see the preferred pronouns for all of the actors (and many of the creatives) included with each bio in the playbill.
Probably the most talked about aspect of this new production of Oklahoma! is the ending. Where other productions implied a character's death as accidental, this one does not; rather, it is blatantly in cold blood. But it is not just the "murder" that is the most shocking, it is the blood-stained dress of Laurey as she wanders around a room full of Oklahoman friends and family stomping and yelling out the title song–not as an anthem of freedom and optimism but one of close-mindedness and hate.
This isn't your grandparent's Oklahoma!. Heck, it may not even be yours, but it is somebody's. And though I admit I was not a fan, nor did I understand a lot of what I saw on stage, the musical does provides something for audiences to think and talk about. And isn't that one of the goals for theater anyway?
Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! , presented by Truist Broadway, runs through April 3, 2022, at Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St. Durham NC. For tickets and information, please visit www.dpacnc.com or the Ticket Center at DPAC in person, or call 919-680-2787. For more information on the tour, visit oklahomabroadway.com/tour/.
Music: Richard Rodgers