By Barry Reszel
In response to numerous comments overheard during intermission and while exiting Broadway in Chicago’s press opening of Director Daniel Fish’s gritty, honest, Tony Award-winning revival of Richard Rodgers’ (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II’s (book and lyrics) OKLAHOMA!, let’s first establish what this production is not.
If you, like this reviewer, have lyrics for “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on the Top,” and “People Will Say We’re in Love” at the ready for some spontaneous karaoke, because part of growing up meant annually watching the 1955 movie with Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones in the lead roles of rugged cowboy Curley McLain and innocent farm girl Laurey Williams… This OKLAHOMA! is not that Oklahoma!
If you cherish and desire the traditional characterizations to remain untarnished from the original 1943 Broadway staging and, daresay, the hundreds, nay thousands, of revivals, tours, regional and community productions since then… This OKLAHOMA! doesn’t allow for that. (Full synopsis and history of the show in all its iterations may be read here.)
If your Oklahoma! requirement includes full orchestrations, gorgeous costumes and sets, sophisticated choreography expertly executed and/or moral assurance of who and what is good and evil—all wrapped up in a toe-tapping package that sends you home humming… Nope. You’re not getting that with this OKLAHOMA!
What patrons do get with this ALL CAPS OKLAHOMA! is the full-blown shout of authentic rural people (farmers and cowhands) cantankerously living together, trying to figure out life and love as they approach the reality of statehood in 1906.
In all versions, Cowboy Curly gets most of the good songs, but Fish reduces his leading man in the white hat character to that of a young, enigmatic suitor with equal parts macho arrogance, misguided ambivalence and too little genuine decency. His nemesis, farmhand Jud Fry, morphs in this iteration from the traditional, undeveloped villain into a tormented soul to whom Laurey shows compassion while acknowledging she fears him. But it’s undoubtedly positioning Laurey as the pivotal character in this love triangle that turns her into this production’s true protagonist.
But make no mistake, Fish’s Laurey, brilliantly portrayed on this tour by the talented Broadway veteran (original Hamilton and OKLAHOMA! casts, Rocky, My Fair Lady and more) Sasha Hutchings, is no dewey-eyed ingénue. Hutchings’ Laurey is brassy, confident and aware—one gets the notion that she only reluctantly marries one of these substandard men because it’s 1906 and, well, the wind is sweepin’ down the plain. Note, too, that Hutchings’ gorgeous voice is well shown off with the production’s more acoustic musical treatment, and her acting in the production’s pivotal final scenes is the stuff of a master class.
Sean Grandillo, also with Broadway credibility (Deaf West’s Spring Awakening), is a youthful, straight-haired Curly who croons nicely while playing his guitar, as all cowboys ought. Christopher Bannow (OKLAHOMA! and The Elephant Man on Broadway) is sympathetically, hauntingly disturbed as Jud. Barbara Walsh’s (Tony Award-nominee, Falsettos) youthful Aunt Eller shares her wisdom and moxie unabashedly. Pose star Sis makes “just a girl who can’t say ‘No,’” Ado Annie all her own, while beau Will Parker is lovingly depicted by Hennessy Winkler. Gabrielle Hamilton reprises from the Broadway production her “Dream Ballet” like none other. Truly, this entire cast is filled with first-rate professionals. But reviews from press night in Chicago necessarily should shout out to Hunter Hoffman, the understudy who stepped into the role of slick peddler Ali Hakim. Let it be said here that Hoffman was every bit as efficient in delivering his performance as the actor he replaced; someone, please inform Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin.
To those attending or contemplating buying a ticket to this transformational production, know going in that the experience might best be described as sepia-toned. A pigment added to a black and white photograph in the darkroom to warm photographs, sepia still leaves the image monochromatic. And that, perhaps, is simultaneously the blessing and curse of this OKLAHOMA! There’s a purposeful absence of technicolor in this production—from the gun rack-adorned, harshly lit plywood of the unit set to the concert storytelling approach that renders it sometimes unclear as to why characters are sitting in on a scene or where that scene is supposed to be taking place. Add to that some dialogue in pitch dark and the construct of filmed live closeups projected on the back wall in black and white.
These are jarring nods to constant threat from land and neighbor—predictive of the ultimate violence at the story’s close while requestive of introspection to modern day. Unlike the romanticization of time, place and characters likely evident in every preceding staging of Oklahoma!, Fish’s rendition is grounded in gravitas—toxic positivity traded for grim reality. The good news is that patrons needn’t choose one over the other; genius comes in many forms. Embracing that truth is easier when one knows what not to expect.
Broadway in Chicago presents “OKLAHOMA!” at CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago, through January 23. More information and tickets are available here.