Friday, November 12, 2021

Broadway Tour of "Oklahoma!" at the Orpheum Theatre

The 2019 Tony winner for best revival of a musical begins its National tour right here in Minneapolis. But this Oklahoma! is more total reimagining than revival. So many revivals are really just a retread of the original production, with a few tweaks here or there. But with this show, it's as if director Daniel Fish were handed the script and score for a new show in 2015 (the first year he directed the show) and created this piece with no knowledge of any production that had ever come before. This production takes wild risks and pushes the edges in every direction. The result is an Oklahoma! that is dark, sexy, urgent, vibrant, modern, stripped-down, and speaks directly to current American by examining its violent* past. Pretty remarkable feat for a nearly 80-year old musical. But it's only in town through Sunday, before heading off across the nation (click here for info and tickets).

I was fortunate enough to have seen Oklahoma! on Broadway in 2019, and was completely enamored of it. But up until last night I was leery of what a tour version would look like. It was performed in-the-round at Circle in the Square, a theater with about 840 seats, with onstage seating, the house lights up for much of the show, and vegetarian chili and cornbread served onstage to the audience during intermission. This created a community feel, as if we were all at the hoedown together. How could this possibly work in a 2500-seat proscenium theater? The answer is that it's different, but it still works. While it naturally doesn't feel as intimate and inclusive of the audience, it's beautifully staged, with all elements of the original production translated as well as they could be.

Walking into the Orpheum Theatre last night, the curtain was up and the stage was fully lit, perhaps as light as I've ever seen that stage look. It's one big open room (replicating the openness of the in-the-round space) with pale tan colored walls on the sides and back, upon which is lightly stenciled a spacious Oklahoma landscape. The only set pieces are a handful of bare wooden chairs and tables, and once the 11-person cast enters, they rarely leave. Even when not in the scene, they're watching, because in a small town like this everyone knows what's going on with everyone. The show opens with the familiar "Oh, what a beautiful morning," and we're off. The familiar story of Laurey and her two competing love interests, the charming cowboy Curly and the reclusive farmhand Jud, plays out, along with Ado Annie's rotating fiancés, the box social, and of course the grim death at the end (80-year old spoiler alert). But every choice along the way makes us look at the familiar story in a new way.

Laurey (Sasha Hutchings) and Curly (Sean Grandillo)
(photo by Matt Murphy)

The Broadway cast was so fantastic, and many of them had been with the project since its inception. This cast is (mostly) new, and are just as fantastic, gorgeous, and talented in their own ways. Sean Grandillo is a charmer with a real purty voice as Curly, also playing guitar on many songs. Sasha Hutchings (who was an alternate on Broadway) is a tough and strong Laurey, and their chemistry is Off. The. Charts. Christopher Bannow expertly walks the line between appealing and creepy as the misunderstood but also possibly malevolent Jud. Barbara Walsh's Aunt Eller is the heart of the piece (for better or worse), Hennessy Winkler is sweet and funny as Will Parker, and Benj Mirman is a lovable rogue as the peddler Ali Hakim. And then we have Ado Annie. How do you follow Ali Stroker, who in this role became the first actor in a wheelchair to win a Tony? You cast a Black trans woman who completely makes the role her own. In the same way that Ali brought her specific talents to the role, Sis does as well, and it's now tailored to her vocals and physicality. Her rendition of "I Cain't Say No" is a sex-positive ditty with a whole new meaning.

Gabrielle Hamilton performing the dream ballet
(photo by Matt Murphy)

One original Broadway cast member reprising her role is the dream ballet dancer, about whom I wrote: "I don't usually like a dream ballet, but dancer Gabrielle Hamilton's performance of John Heginbotham's choreography is a modern masterpiece, so organic and emotional that it feels like she's expressing with movement everything that Laurey is feeling but cannot say." The choreography throughout the rest of the show puts a modern twist on the hoedown. And I love the cast's cowboy chic wardrobe (designed by Terese Wadden) so much I might have tried to emulate it myself last night.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's first score, full of so many familiar and beloved songs, is so well-written that it holds up to different treatments. In this production, orchestrator Daniel Kluger has set it in the time and place of the story - the early 20th Century American frontier. The seven-piece onstage band consists of instruments like banjo, mandolin, and pedal steel (is there a more emotionally evocative instrument?!), giving it an old-timey Country Western feel that feels authentic and is a joy to listen to.

"The farmer and the cowman should be friends!"
(photo by Matt Murphy)
That brightly lit stage gives way to other extremes, including an odd greenish light at dramatic moments, and pitch blackness, removing sight from the equation and focusing our attention on the amplification of voices in intimate moments. Some of these also include close-up videos of the characters projected concurrently on the back wall. Every element of design thoughtfully plays with extremes and contrasts. (Lighting design by Scott Zielinski, sound design by Drew Levy, projection design by Joshua Thorson.)

This feels like a grungy downtown show that improbably made its way to Broadway, and now on tour. And I for one am thrilled. It's forward-thinking and pushes the boundaries of musical theater. I hope that this long intermission we're slowly coming out of will lead to the creation of new original musicals, but if we're going to continue to revive old and possibly dated shows, this is how we should do it.

What I wrote about the 2019 Broadway production still holds true: Oklahoma! reinvented (or created) the musical theater form when it premiered in 1944, and now this production is reinventing what a revival can and should be. It's no longer enough just to put up the same old show again without thinking about what the world looks like today. This is a grim look at the violence* that built America, that still defines America, at the benefits and dangers of a tight-knit community. A dark, sexy, authentic, urgent Oklahoma! that has never been seen before."

Oklahoma! continues at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis through November 14, and then continues its tour across America into 2022.

*Note: there are a lot of guns onstage, with several shocking gunshots. But it's a show that's thoughtful about gun use, and is a gun-neutral production, donating money to anti-gun violence causes (read more about that here).