REVIEW: Modern Take on ‘Oklahoma!’ Gets Lost in Translation at Peace Center

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

Heralded as “brilliant” in its Broadway run by critics and Tony award voters alike, Daniel Fish’s minimalist, brooding production of Oklahoma! sowed its kernels of corn this week at the Peace Center for only the second stop on a year-long tour after opening in Minneapolis last week.

Winner of the 2019 Tony award for Best Revival, this sparse adaptation began at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in 2015 and played Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2018 before moving to the Circle in the Square Theatre for an intimate staging featuring a seven-piece country western band nestled in the stage, and eight gallons of chili and cornbread served to the audience at intermission.

Gone is the stomp-line of handsome cowboys in chaps (there is no ensemble); no fields of corn (though there is some husk shucking’); no set pieces aside from a handful of rustic tables and chairs; plywood lines the three walls with hidden doors and a bucolic scene upstage of a working farm and houses in the distant planked by a series of ominous stocked gun racks on the side walls. And only a vestige of the happy-go-lucky optimism left from the version that we all grew up with, or even performed ourselves.

Fish’s vision casts aside all preconceived notions of the traditional Rodgers & Hammerstein musical that was the Hamilton of its day and revolutionized American musical theatre in 1943.

The script miraculously remains completely intact. And that is the point he is making. The text (and subtext) dominates this production. Lurking underneath the romances, courting and festive musical numbers (and questionable character of its characters) is a dark story of the savage wild west, squatters in Indian territory, and vigilante justice. And though it impacted differently with a wartime audience in its conception, the message is disturbing resonate today with the Black Lives Matter revolution, and most poignantly this week as a vigilante punk in Wisconsin got away with two murders and an attempted murder.

Sean Grandillo delights as the guitar-picking Curly McLain (“Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” and a fantastic slower-tempo “Surrey with Fringe on Top”) and Sasha Hutchings soars as his love interest Laurey Williams, who is also being courted by the outcast farmhand Jud Fry, played with utmost subtlety by Christopher Bannow.

A charming Hennessy Winkler is the footloose and intelligence-free Will Parker (“Kansas City”) who has spent his $50 for his gal’s hand in marriage (the girl who can’t say no Ado Annie played by Sis) on frivolous and naughty items in the big city. Sis, a transgender actor, is a bold and shining example of inclusive casting, and a departure vocally (an alto) from the soprano twang of Ali Stoker, the wheelchair bound performer who won the Tony for Featured Actress in the original production. Her other suitor – forced by her father’s shotgun barrel – is the traveling peddler Ali Hakim, portrayed without a Persian accent with understated, deadpan perfection by Benj Mirman.

Rounding out the main cast is Broadway veteran Barbara Walsh as the matriarch Aunt Eller and Ugo Chukwu as Cord Elam.

There is much to love about this slimmed down version of Oklahoma! The new arrangements and orchestartions are phenomenal with an apt wagon train bluegrass instrumentation with banjo, steel guitar, fiddle, cello, upright bass, mandolin and accordion. Why on God’s green earth did it take 78 years for this glorious re-conceptualization of Rodgers’ score? Kudos to the R&H estate for green-lighting this alteration, and also for the stamp of approval for a same-sex and African-American versions over the last few years.

Perhaps the most radical departure from the traditional staging is the infamous and groundbreaking “Dream Ballet” originally choreographed by the great Agnes DeMille. Created by John Heginbotham and danced by Gabrielle Hamilton of the original 2018 version, Fish has moved this scene from the act one finale to the act two opener with a powerful metal guitar solo reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s national anthem. Trimmed to about 9 minutes (from 29 pages), Hamilton is superb but the storytelling of Laurey’s indecisiveness is overshadowed sometimes by the technical savvy of Scott Zielinski’s beautiful and haunting lighting design.

Other scenes incorporate a complete blackout such as the home-erotic “Pore Jud is Daid” projecting live video on the upstage wall, and conversely, the blinding rise of the sun.

Of course, moving from a 500 seat theatre in the round to a 2,000+ proscenium theatre did require some alterations. Unfortunately, the transfer suffers immensely. The intimacy has all but vanished. Instead of transformative and personal, the staging of some sequences are downright dull. Actors are socially-distanced, numbers are sung sitting down, and the drama and conflict suffers. Jud’s death is a shocker (supplanting a gun instead of a knife) as Curly and Laurey are splattered with blood.

Oklahoma! runs through Sunday, November 21 at the Peace Center in Greenville. Tickets are available at peacecenter.org or by calling (864) 467-3000.

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