Reviewed by Jessica Neu
“Oh, what a beautiful evening” it was at the Benedum Center as the national touring cast of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical, Oklahoma! opened for a one-week engagement running through this Sunday, January 9, 2022.
This production of the well-known musical does not look, sound, or present like the classic telling, which debuted on Broadway in 1943. The new, reimagined revival directed by Daniel Fish achieved national acclaim after opening on Broadway in 2019. The modernized take on the classic musical clearly took some guests by surprise as the theater had noticeably fewer patrons after intermission. While the show is no doubt modernized and different, I urge you not only to see the show but also to stay until curtain call.
After seeing the show, audiences will undoubtedly be left with a myriad of emotions. The script, songs, score, and characters have not changed from the original Broadway production. Audiences are still hearing the same utterances and the same lyrics sung by the same characters from nearly 80 years ago.
So then, why does the show feel so transformed? To fully appreciate the reimagined telling of the classic musical, audiences must be willing to accept the artistic and stylistic choices made by the creative team. The lighting is edgy and dramatic, yet symbolic. The set appears like something between a graduation party and my own kitchen after entertaining company, inviting and comforting in its detail.
Also, not to be missed is the backdrop landscape composed on the wood paneling that encircles the stage, but also reads a beautiful ohmage to the historic painted backdrops that provided scenery for classic Broadway shows.
The audio is dynamic and leveled in a way that uses periodic microphones to give the performance an intimate, concert-like atmosphere while also symbolizing the characters’ internal desires to be heard as well as seen in their community.
The score, performed by a small orchestra on stage that reads far more as a backup band than the traditional orchestra, is reimagined with bluegrass arrangements punctuated by several acapella moments that allow the actors’ vocal prowess to shine.
This production’s multicultural cast represents an America then, told by America now. This cultural appropriation certainly speaks to a more significant trend in musical theater.
Unless a show casts A-list celebrities (i.e., Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, who are currently starring in The Music Man), it could prove challenging to revive a classic, yet outdated, show successfully in modern America, without significant reinvention of both the cast but also how the story is told. This notion is what makes Oklahoma! not good, but great.
As mentioned earlier, the production uses the same script, score, and characters from 1943, but the story is told differently.
Audiences watching the show today at this moment in history will recognize a social commentary on the angst of middle America. Grappling with issues of identity, happiness, and loyalty while attempting to navigate their piece of the American Dream with a macabre ending once masked by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s veneer of big song and dance numbers with elaborate props and costumes.
The show also provides commentary on mental health struggles through one of the lead characters, Jud Fry (Christopher Bannow). Jud’s unhinged response to his unrequited love for Laurey (Sasha Hutchings) is described as “crazy,” which in 1943 was an accepted term for the mentally unwell. Still, the characters’ response, or lack thereof, to their fellow farmer in need of help highlights the grave need for mental health awareness and assistance in this historical moment. Bannow’s portrayal of Jud is bone-chillingly nuanced in a perfect portrayal of desperation and despair.
Barrow’s tone is accented by lighting and camera work like nothing I have experienced in the theater before. While momentarily jarred, I found myself quickly immersed in the haunting brilliance of Jud’s world, despite knowing the outcome of his story. The director’s choice for Jud to conclude “Poor Jud is Dead” with his back to the audience but directly facing Laurey was nonconventional but only augmented his capacity as a potential threat to the story’s beloved female lead.
Laurey’s character, along with Aunt Eller (Barbara Walsh), Ado Annie (Sis), Gertie Cummings (Hannah Solow), and the Lead Dancer in Laurey’s “Dream Ballet” (Gabrielle Hamilton), brought an empowered, refreshing epoch of third-wave feminism to the musical. Most notably, their corn-husking scene in “Many a New Day” was far more 90s “Lilith Fair” in nature than the dreamy optimistic innocence portrayed by the women in the original production. Furthermore, Sis’ rendition of “I Can’t Say No” checks the nostalgia box for any audience member familiar with the song while delivering one of the strongest vocal performances of the evening.
These female characters were independent, self-assured, yet unabashedly unhappy in some regards, but never a victim, a cornerstone of a modern American woman.
This production of Oklahoma! is situated somewhere in between a fictional tale and a vision for today’s America. It is thought-provoking and smart as it delivers the classic songs and story, but in a way that provokes conversations of relationships, appropriation and hegemony. Is this the future of the Broadway revival? Does the American audience want more than polished grandiose productions that make social commentary appear pleasant?
Only time will determine the trajectory of the American musical revival, but for now, this modernized Oklahoma! is “doing (more than) fine.”