In 1907, Oklahoma became a state. In 1943, OKLAHOMA became a pivotal musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein. In 2018, director Daniel Fish took the almost 80 year old OKLAHOMA, blew off the dust, rethought the entire show from top to bottom and gave the world its first look at this radically different production.
So, even if you think you know OKLAHOMA, throw everything out you knew and, to quote the leading character Laurey, “Start all over again.”
If you are unfamiliar with OKLAHOMA, you’ll be happy to hear that the storyline was and still is minimal. Curly (Sean Grandillo) is in love with Laurey (Sasha Hutchings) and spends the entire show trying to get her to admit she feels the same and marry him. Then there is Willl Parker (Hennessy Winkler) who is in love with Ado Annie (Sis),who, unfortunately for Will, is just “a girl who can’t say no.” While Will was away, a travelling peddler named Ali Hakim (Benj Mirman) was not only selling his merchandise but also his entire catalog of sweet talking empty promises to Ado Annie, leaving her in a total state of confusion. Meanwhile, Laurey’s ranch hand, a brooding social outcast named Jud Fry (Christopher Bannow), has become obsessed with the idea of marrying Laurey He goes as far as threatening her and Curly if she doesn’t agree. In most productions, after a final confrontation between Jud and Curly, the entire incident is forgotten as if nothing happened. Everyone celebrates the loving couple’s wedding and they live happily ever after following a rousing chorus of the title tune. Not so in this production. Director Daniel Fish allows the darker, seamier and steamier sides to show. In a small town like Claremore, there is not much to do, so sex becomes one of the few ways to have fun that is available. And it shows. There is some definite heat between this production’s Laurey and Curly. At times she moves around him slowly and seductively much like a snake getting ready to devour a mouse in one gulp.
The entire show is played inside a large barn-like structure (designed by Laura Jellinek) set up for a dance complete with a band, tables, decorations and rifles lining the wall. As the director’s goal was to offer up a contemporarily relevant production, the costumes, by Terese Wadden, are, for the most part, modern day and the new choreography by John Heginbotham reflects period dances through a modern eye. The casting is totally color-blind. And what wonderful casting it is!
Sasha Hutchings’ Laurey is no damsel in distress. She is practical and observant while being strong-willed and stubborn to a fault at the same time. Her voice, like Laurey’s personality, can go from beautiful and sweet to strong and earthy in the blink of an eye. Every one of her songs felt like I was hearing them for the first time. Mr. Grandillo’s boyish good looks gives us a Curly who seems soft and easy going and he is, that is, until his world is threatened. Then it is clear that he will do whatever he has to, to protect anyone and anything he holds dear. Of all the Jud Frys I have seen, Christopher Bannow’s take on the part creates the most unhinged and frightening of them all. On the other edge of the spectrum is the hilarious Ado Annie as portrayed by Sis. She is a large woman who gives us a naive Ado Annie with a voracious yet surprisingly innocent appetite for men. She is given most of the laughs in the show and delivers on them all.
The new orchestrations for a small group of musicians gave the music more country flavor than before and was another welcomed change to the musical.
There were some things, however, that I found forced and distracting. There are occasional uses of handmikes which were an odd addition considering that the play takes place in 1906 and they showed up somewhat randomly with no consistent reasons. Setting the entire production within the dance hall sometimes made it difficult to discern where the action was taking place. There was nothing to pinpoint whether we were at Aunt Eller’s house Jud Fry’s room or anywhere else for that matter. The one exception being the picnic dinner dance held in the only set onstage. Whether these things will bother you or not is a matter of personal taste. But one thing I can say for certain Is that this is not like any other production of OKLAHOMA you have ever seen before. Its fresh new approach lets us experience the depth of the book and the score as never before. For that reason alone, I highly recommend seeing this production of OKLAHOMA playing now through Oct.16 at the AHMANSON Theatre in Los Angeles
For tickets or further information visit their website at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org