Theater review: “OKLAHOMA!” at the Kennedy Center

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Sasah Hutchings (Laurey) and Sean Grandillo (Curly) “OKLAHOMA!” at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Matthew Murph and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

The Bard Summerscape production of “OKLAHOMA!” by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein is currently playing at the Kennedy Center. It is the version reimagined by “visionary director, Daniel Fish” and has a more updated take on the musical. The script and lyrics remain the same, but you’ll notice a distinct shift in focus from the set to the cast actors.

The audience is made to feel part of the set by leaving the audience lights on and mingling with the actors. The ambiance of the entire theater is more rural than downtown Washington, DC. Don’t be shocked by the gun racks on the walls.

This revival of “OKLAHOMA!” is up to date and made relevant even after more than 75 years.

Even in 1943, the musical was meant to highlight the unification of vastly different sections of the country. The country, itself, having been forcibly united by the Second World War. It must be remembered that when “OKLAHOMA!” opened it was less than 100 years after the end of the Civil War.

There are several instances of gun violence in the series. For every visible weapon in any production, “OKLAHOMA!” will donate to Gun Neutral, a non-profit, non-partisan initiative.

Agnès de Mille’s famous “Dream Ballet” is choreographed in a striking and different way by John Heginbotham. Terese Wadden’s costumes are also modern. The cast wears jeans and shorts with t-shirts – not the 1906 clothes Oklahomans would have worn when they became a state.

If you’re surprised by the changes, remember that Rogers & Hammerstein based their first collaboration on the unsuccessful 1931 play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” a bit darker and edgier than the famous musical. “OKALHOMA! was a huge success, and the first of many for Rogers & Hammerstein. He won the Pulitzer and Theater World Award in the 1940s and a special Tony in his 50th Birthday in 1993. This 2019 release also won Tony for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical.

Oklahoma in 1904 was trying to become the 48th state. This is Oklahoma before the Tulsa massacre and after the end of slavery. The biggest problem was the friction between the farmers and the cowboys/ranchers. Laurey Williams (Sasha Hutchings) is a beautiful young girl and Curly McLain (Sean Grandillo) and Jud Fry (Christopher Bannow) compete for her affections. Laurey is cared for by her aunt Eller (Barbara Walsh) with whom she lives. Also in a budding relationship are teen Annie (Sis), a bit flirtatious, and Will Parker (Hennessey Winkler), a little more worldly after his time in Kansas City. Annie also has a little fling with a traveling peddler, Ali Hakim (Benj Mirman). All of this will lead to clashes at the grand ball between Laurey and Annie’s suitors and the farmers and cowherds. Add to that, a magic elixir, and you have the basic plot.

The music is some of the most memorable in American performance music. “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin”, “Oklahoma” and “People Will Say We’re in Love” are probably the most famous. I particularly like “Kansas City” and “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”. All of these are show stoppers, as well as “I can’t say no”.

If you’ve seen the musical or the movie, it might take you a few scenes to get used to this version. The music, with few exceptions, is modern country music, think Tim McGraw or Kelly Clarkson in style. From the opening of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” to the final “Oklahoma,” there’s not really a sense of a big Broadway production number. The closest to that is “The Farmer and the Cowman” which is done as a more modern square dance, but still gets all the performers dancing.

When you see a theater, you have to leave reality at the door. It is true for this production but in a different way. Laura Jellinek’s set appears to be a large entertainment center with simple wooden tables and folding chairs. The background is a stark wall with only two trusses drawn on it. There are fringes of garlands hanging from the ceiling, like you would see at a New Year’s Eve party, with colored lights on a wall and the gun racks.

The lighting spills out into the audience, and there are scenes that go completely black for several minutes. Scott Zielinski (lighting designer) also switches to color lighting for some scenes, and often the actors are barely silhouettes.

The costumes are also anachronistic. Some are very 21st century while others seem closer to the 1950s. Even the accessories are modern, for example electric slow cookers and Igloo coolers.

The biggest surprise is the cast. Curly’s hair is not curly and Laurey is not blonde, although some music and lines still mention it. Teen Annie is played by an actor who is trans and is much taller than Annie’s beaus. Ali Hakem has no accent even though the character comes from Persia.

The show is staged as if it were a concert. Some of the lines are said with little expression, intentionally. It’s like someone running the show from a game room somewhere in Oklahoma. The only thing all of this does is make the last scene even more powerful. (I won’t say.) It’s like reality has crept into this little show, because gun violence in our country has a way of appearing out of nowhere to shock us, and then we just go on and on like before.

The actors may not be traditional but are remarkable. Interracial partnership wasn’t legal in Oklahoma until the 1970s, but it works here. I enjoyed the performances, especially Ado Annie because of the talent of the actor. Sis belts “I can’t say no” more like an R&B diva than an Oklahoma girl and it was wonderful.

Hutchings’ Laurey shows the character as less than sweet at times, which is refreshing. She can also sing a song. Curly, as played by Grandillo, isn’t as macho as his predecessors. The character does many of his numbers while strumming a guitar. Grandillo and Hutchings connect well in the “People Will Say We’re In Love” number.

Winkler, who may be the best dancer in the cast, is just perfect as Will Parker as he sings “Kansas City.” Hammerstein’s book gives some of the funniest lines to Annie, Will and Ali Hakim. The three performers all made those moments work. Bannow’s Jud Fry is a pathetic and lonely person. Sometimes his performance is chilling. He makes Jud downright creepy, like an undiscovered serial killer or mass murderer as he sings “Lonely Room.”

Walsh as Aunt Eller and Mirman as Hakim also bring magic to their roles. Gabrielle Hamilton plays Laurey during the famous dance scene. She is an extremely talented dancer and the “Dream Ballet” is set to heavy metal music with Hawaiian-style steel guitar sounds. The dance itself is part ballet, part gymnastic floor exercise, part exotic dancer.

The rest of the cast, which includes Ugo Chukwu as Cord Elam, Hannah Solow as Gertie Cummings, Mitch Tebo as Andrew Carnes and Patrick Clanton as Mike, provide a solid foundation for the others. performers.

I applaud Fish for this experience. It opens up this genre to a whole new audience. I may not agree with some of his choices, but I respect him for making theater more flexible. The same goes for Daniel Kluger’s orchestrations and arrangements. It might not be everyone’s favorite style, but it works in the context of this version of “OKLAHOMA!” The orchestra conducted by Andy Collopy also helps Fish to create this vision.

This revival of “OKLAHOMA!” is up to date and made relevant even after more than 75 years. You will wonder if this beautiful morning is real or just an illusion.

Duration: 2h45 with an intermission.

Notice: Recommended for ages 12 and up and contains fog, loud gunfire effects, moments of complete darkness and violence.

“OKLAHOMA!” through April 10, 2022 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20566. To check availability and purchase tickets, go to this link. To view the Kennedy Center Covid Safety Plan, go to this link.

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