ICYMI: A reignited ‘Oklahoma!’ for a new century, opens January 4th at the Benedum

By Sharon Eberson

Oklahoma! the OG 1943 version comes at you in a bright golden haze and ends in the happily ever after of two marriages – man and woman/cowboy and farmer – united for statehood.

In between, there’s the petty teasing of would-be lovers, jealousy and lust, violence and vulgarity, and an ill-used, unstable loner driven to a murderous rage.

So if anyone tells you that the latest “Oklahoma!” has reinvented the wheel by going to a dark place, that’s not entirely true.

The 21st-century version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first hit as a team does follow a darker path than its predecessors: There’s no sugar-coating the grit inherent in the story, based on Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play with music, Green Grow the Lilacs.

Or, as Ben Brantley put it in his glowing New York Times review, “How is it that the coolest new show on Broadway in 2019 is a 1943 musical usually regarded as a very square slice of American pie?”

This latest version of Oklahoma!, coming to the Benedum Center Jan. 4-9, strips away pretense, embraces diversity, and uses a modern lens to dig deeper into the state of humanity as the Oklahoma territory is about to gain statehood, circa 1907.

Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics) said in an interview that even as he wrote about the dark side of life, he tried to focus on the good because “someone has to write about meadows bathed in sunshine,” a reference to “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.”

First-time Broadway director Daniel Fish has said he thought he knew Oklahoma! until he started to work on it. He found himself focusing on the supposed villain of the piece, Jud Fry,

Barbara Walsh and Patrick Clanton in the national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA!. Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

“I saw a story about community, the nature of the outsider, the role of the outsider in the community, and the need of the community to create an outsider, that I had no idea was in this piece.”

Fish’s vision goes to dark places, such as addressing the gun violence that won the West. Racks filled with guns (there is no live ammunition) line the walls, and shots are fired. The show makes some of its points with sound and lighting, which may illuminate the entire theater or thrust it into darkness.

This new Oklahoma! also ditches the 1943 Agnes de Mille dream ballet, so innovative in its day, for a modern dance by a soloist – the Broadway and now touring debut of Point Park University’s Gabrielle Hamilton – dressed in a T-shirt emblazoned with “Dream Baby Dream.” Choreographer John Heginbotham discovered Hamilton during a visit to Point Park.

Gabrielle Hamilton, a Point Park University alum, and the company of the National Tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA! — Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

In another first, Ado Annie – the girl who can’t say no – was played on Broadway by the Tony-winning actress Ali Stroker, who has used a wheelchair for mobility since age 2.

That may make this Oklahoma! a purist’s bad dream, but for those who applaud exploration and reinvention of classics, some believe Fish’s new version has reawakened a nearly 80-year-old musical for a new generation.

The reimagining of beloved works has been under a microscope of late, as critics and audiences debate the merits of Shakespeare to Sondheim to Spielberg (for the sake of alliteration) in the case of West Side Story (Tony Kushner wrote the 2021 book of the movie musical).

Taking a masterpiece such as Romeo and Juliet and putting it on screen with, say, Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes is a lot less risky than reshaping the Bard’s love story/family feud as an urban ethnic culture clash between rival gangs – and as a musical.

And when that musical becomes a perennial favorite, to reimagine it again, as Spielberg and Kushner have done this year, well, you get lots of take-sides “better than” and “worst than” headlines.

Sondheim was closely involved in helping Spielberg realize his vision. Sondheim also gave his stamp of approval to the gender-swap Company now on Broadway. His thumbs-up, not long before his death in November, should give purists pause when they are quick to judge.

Oklahoma! has met with near-universal approval, although some have had strong reactions to its taking aim at gun violence in any era.

For instance, the New York Post review critic Johnny Oleksinski all but dismissed the onstage bluegrass band and called the production “pretentious” and “heavy-handed.”

His was a voice in the wilderness.

Oklahoma! was nominated for eight Tonys in 2019, including for Fish and scenic, sound, and orchestrations, and won two, for Stroker as featured actress in a musical and as best musical revival.

Brantley, not often so effusive in his praise, declared, “Mr. Fish has reconceived a work often seen as a byword for can-do optimism as a mirror for our age of doubt and anxiety. This is Oklahoma! for an era in which longstanding American legacies are being examined with newly skeptical eyes.”

And that was in the Before Times when doubt and anxiety did not include a pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many more.

What reimagining Oklahoma! and other classics drives home is that a fresh take can renew interest in what came before while also shining a light on how an 80-year-old work of art can be reignited for today’s audiences.

For more information and tickets for PNC Broadway’s Oklahoma! visit: https://trustarts.org/production/69946/oklahoma

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