The iconic musical Oklahoma! was overdue for a revamp, but who could have predicted what director Daniel Fish would conceive of as the gloriously edgy production now in town at the Kennedy Center? The 80-year-old book and lyrics are the same, the tunes are the same — Rogers and Hammerstein are in the house — but their one-show horse and buggy has been stripped down and rebuilt as a zippy electric vehicle for sex and political zeitgeist . And what an exciting ride it is.
The story, set in 1906 in the titular territory on the cusp of statehood, is apparently about tensions between farmers and cattle herders – whom a song urges to be friends by dancing with the each other’s daughters (and presumably by getting married). Women as chattels (the word is akin to livestock) is a recurring theme and literally appears in the bride price Ado Annie’s father demands of her smitten suitor, Will Parker.
In this historically accurate cultural context – which the original musical romances until the cows come home – we are introduced to two young women, each torn between two men. Ado Annie is in love not only with Will, a cowboy, but also with Ali Hakim, a traveling peddler whose heritage is Persian (now Iranian). Meanwhile, Laurey is wooed by both Curly McLain, also a cowboy, and Jud Fry, her depressed mercenary. So does the alien and the possibly malevolent malcontent get these two girls or do the American type cowboys? Make a wild guess.
Considered today, the 1940s book and lyrics – which devote a lot of stage time to portraying Laurey and Ado Annie’s companion competitions as suspenseful – grapple with a passel of heteronormative tropes. Early in the series, for example, one of those tropes turns into a song, Ado Annie’s “I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say No,” which, after #MeToo, returns to singing “Hi , I’ll be your doormat, so I went to the Eisenhower Theater very curious about how this particular song would be performed.
I couldn’t have been more surprised. Daniel Fish’s staging is iconoclastic from the start (which I will come back to). But the moment Ado Annie sings this song, the show pivots into complete subversion. Cast to play Teen Annie is Sis (she has a name), who rips this song and commands the stage. A force of nature with a prisonerless sex agency, this Teen Annie could intimidate any #himtoo himbo in her path.
She turns out to be too much for peddler Ali Hakim (thankfully not stereotypical in Benj Mirman’s nuanced portrayal), but avid cowboy Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler as a would-be dude with genuinely honest charm) can’t. have enough. In the second act, Will and Ado Annie have a song called “All Er Nothin'” in which he demands that she not be unfaithful even though he can play the field. The song, while lighthearted and melodically upbeat, is essentially a hymn to a man’s claim to a woman’s body as his property.
In what must be a first in Broadway musical history, Ado Annie and Will are played by trans actors. Their voices alone and together are fantastic; their interaction on stage is super fun. And the salutary effect of this change in casting is a rebalancing of the gender dynamics of the characters and therefore a fundamental recalibration of their love story: the script’s underlying proprietary presumptions are retained for what they are. The songs and the story are exactly as they were written. They have not been redeemed. But they have been radically revised. (See “Actress/Activist Sis Hosts ‘Trans March on Broadway’ for Respect and Visibility” by DCMTA’s Deb Miller.)
Throughout the show, the style and instrumentation of the songs are also radically transformed. From the opening notes of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” sung with soulful singularity by Sean Grandillo as Curly, guitar in hand, we hear subtexts and nuances we could never have heard before. When Curly is joined by the shimmering vocals of Sasha Hutchins as Laurey, we hear even more of the rich country-western and bluegrass vocal inflections that become the musical backline and emotional heartline of the show. And when Curly brags to Laurey about “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” he wants to take her for a ride in, he sings and moves with an undercurrent of sexual seduction that surely would have been too explicit for the 1940s.
The orchestra, on stage most of the time, is made up mostly of strings – acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, mandolin, cello, double bass – which will occasionally screech, tinkle and howl like a hoedown from above (the orchestrations and arrangements are by Daniel Kluger).
The vocals will sound growling, yodeling at times, at times over mics with selective reverb and subwoofer, but the ensemble sings throughout with a similar commitment to telling the truth of the characters, not just for the sake of beauty. To my ears, the vocals of this company surpass those of the very excellent original Broadway cast album (available below). And I can attest that the acoustics of this roadshow, even from the back of the house, are really, really good (sound design is by Drew Levy).
Laura Jellinek’s stage design places the story in a spare nonspecific space lined with plywood, bare except for the painted mural on the top wall of the stage showing vast fields and two distant houses. The stage is set up with rough wooden tables and chairs, jars of food, piles of corn on the cob and six-packs of Bud Light suggest a social occasion with a festive fringe on top. But the stage walls left and right tell a darker story, a gun show, racks and gun racks mounted on three levels.
The ensemble comes dressed as if for a contemporary country-western party (Terese Wadden designed the costumes). Their choreography (John Heginbotham) is always character-specific, never flaunting, which means there are inventive and uninhibited takes on border dancing, like a lot of slapping.
Scott Zielinski’s lighting is generally daylight, except for a few scenes played expressionistically in an all-red or green wash and one played to smashing effect in total darkness. The clash is the smoking room scene in which Curly, in a song called “Pore Jud Is Dead”, tries to convince his rival Jud Fry to kill himself. The scene plays out in blackout as an eerie audio playback punctuated by a huge live video feed of Jud’s troubled face on the top wall of the stage (projection design by Joshua Thorson). It’s not just the haunting staging that makes the scene dizzying; it’s Christopher Bannow’s unsettling performance as Jud, who seems both menacing and deeply troubled.
Only once during the show did I feel his iconoclasm had gone off the rails. The dream ballet, famously choreographed for the Broadway premiere and Agnès de Mille’s film, is intended to have a narrative illustrating Laurey’s indecision between Curly and Jud (the dream is believed to be induced by an opiate tincture she got from the peddler). Fish wisely moved the arguably superfluous ballet from the end of act one to the top of act two. But the episode was reimagined as a feverish calisthenic solo with no semblance of a script. Principal dancer Gabrielle Hamilton, dressed in an incongruous sparkly t-shirt that says Dream Baby Dream, is wonderfully and gracefully athletic as she moves to a raw Jimmy Hendrix-style guitar accompaniment. But the character-driven narrative of Laurey’s hallucination is gone, so you never know who this dancer is or how she got into the plot.
But this misstep is an exception to the extraordinary vision and assurance that Fish brought to his direction of the rest of this classic. Less than ten minutes later, I found myself wishing such a refresh could be done on other aging musicals in the American canon. Here’s just one example of his shrewd director’s touch: At more than half a dozen points during the show, he inserts a caesura, a brief pause when the actors are still such that we can feel we could fill in the eerie silence. with our own content. It’s a form of audience engagement I’ve never experienced before. It passes very quickly. It’s not dead air; it’s different. It is a time to share the questioning of received meaning and the reimagining of everything.
Duration: 2h45, including an intermission.
Rogers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! runs through April 10, 2022 at the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($69 to $150), call (202) 467-4600 or drop by in line.
the Oklahoma! the program is online here.
COVID Safety: Proof of full COVID-19 vaccination is required to attend all performances and indoor events at the Kennedy Center. Masks are mandatory regardless of vaccination status. The Kennedy Center’s full COVID safety plan is here.
Original cast album
Music by Richard Rodgers
Libretto and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the game Grow lilacs green by Lynn Riggs, with original dances by Agnes de Mille
Directed by Daniel Fish
Sasha Hutchings as Laurey Williams
Sean Grandillo as Curly McLain
Christopher Bannow as Jud Fry
Sis as Teen Annie Carnes
Hennessy Winkler as Will Parker
Benj Mirman as Ali Hakim
Barbara Walsh as Aunt Eller
Hannah Solow as Gertie Cummings
Patrick Clanton as Mike
Ugo Chukwu as Cord Elam
Mitch Tebo (Andrew Carnes)
Gabrielle Hamilton (main dancer)
Liners: Gillian Hassert, Cameron Anika Hill, Hunter Hoffman, Scott Redmond, Gwynne Wood and Jordan Wynn
John Heginbotham (New Choreography)
Daniel Kluger (Orchestrations/Arrangements)
Nathan Koci (music supervisor)
Andy Collopy (music director)
Cast by Taylor Williams and Borna Barzin
Laura Jellinek (stage design)
Terese Wadden (Costume Design)
Scott Zielinski (lighting design)
Drew Levy (sound design)
Joshua Thorson (projection design)
Production Scene Management: Andrew Bacigalupo, Rachael Wilkin and Jordan Wynn