OKLAHOMA! Shake up expectations at the Benedum Center
Hardly any name in musical theater creates more instinctive, deeper moans than Oklahoma! Is it that. For enemies, everything is wrong with musical theater: songs about silly landscapes and silly farmers, homoerotic cowboys, cornpone dialogue, quavering opera vocals and warmed up schtick. And the enemies are not wrong: Oklahoma! is often as old-fashioned as its reputation suggests. But not this time.
When it comes to the Big Five (R&H, Jerry Herman, Kander & Ebb, Lloyd Webber, Sondheim), musical theater icons’ Mount Rushmore, Rodgers and Hammerstein tend to be my last choice. And their most produced shows, Oklahoma! is my least favorite among those. But the 2019 Daniel Fish revival (sometimes known as Wokelahoma Where F * cklahoma for his face to face, topical and libidinal approach) is the only casting recording of the show that I carry on my phone with me. No matter what you think about it, you can’t say a word against the country, rock and bluegrass reimagining of the legendary musical’s score. That said, there were a surprising number of intermission walkouts on opening night, and it wasn’t because of the bluegrass music.
There is no way around this: Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! is controversial by design. It is the most poised and traditional musical of its time (it was believed to be the case at the time), reinvented as an experimental theater Ã la Charles L. Mee. It was scary. It was daring. It was topical. It was uncomfortable – often on purpose, sometimes not. And it probably caught half the audience completely off guard, expecting rope tricks and cowboys kicking and singing with vibratos wide enough to pass a surrey with bangs on top. This Oklahoma!, in short, fuck.
I don’t want to give too much away here, because it is better to be surprised. Some of you who read it will love it. Some of you will hate it. But if I describe too much of what’s going on to make this show special, it will lose its shocking power. Let me be vague: some of the actors play a neutral and impassive two-man, and others a manic, stylized ten-sided musical. The actors deliver their lines to the audience as often as to each other. Some scenes are played out in complete darkness, while others are lit by a close-up video that looks like a TikTok live or a âghost adventuresâ reality show. The dream ballet … is coming. And it all ends with a literal explosion of serocomic gore. Really, it’s a journey and you have to see it to believe it.
Whether you want a more traditional production or think director Fish didn’t go far enough in desecrating an old idol, the performance is pretty much flawless. Sean Grandillo does a great alt-country Curly, strumming his guitar and going from a hoarse growl to an enthusiastic falsetto with a touch of Hadestown on it. Her counterpart, Hamilton’s Sasha Hutchings on Disney +, is a force of nature like Laurey. Sometimes surly and sometimes sensual, she brings warmth, fire and soul with a country-rock touch to her songs and completely upsets the archetype of the ingenious chirping soprano. In fact, with her dangerously simmering sexuality, she embodies the type of character we’ve come to expect from Jud Fry.
But in the hands of Christopher Bannow, Jud is something very different. Soft-spoken, intense, almost shy but with a menace behind him, this Jud is not a sexy bad boy from the romance novel, the kind of Twilight movie you normally see. This Jud … I’m just going to say it … this Jud is an incel. While most productions play his shed stash, full of pornography, like a sensitive loner who isn’t as denial of his sexual needs as the button-up townspeople, here he isn’t played like testosterone. and machismo and more like thousands of young men locked in their bedrooms with an endless chain of Pornhub clips and violent fantasies slowly curdling them. It works more than it doesn’t; Bannow’s performance is nuanced, frightening and real. Problem is, it sometimes clashes with the way other characters talk about Jud: Laurey’s monologue about how she fears Jud because he makes her feel physical cravings, when given the delivery. of Hutchings and Bannow’s performance, can only be interpreted as Laurey having an unapologetic rape fantasy about assaulting Jud.
Outside of the main trio, the characters are for the most part larger and more comedic, although the performances here are still not what you would expect. Actress and activist Sis tears up Ado Annie’s songs and comedic scenes with righteous fury, almost knocking down the balcony with her huge voice and presence on “I Cain’t Say No”. Hennessy Winkler’s most conventional book, traditionally Oklahoma! performance in the lot, although in his skimpy outfits, all tattoos all the time, he looks more like a parody of a hipster than a rootin-tootin bronco-buster.
Now here’s the kicker: have you ever seen a Oklahoma! where Ali Hakim was perhaps the best part? Benj Mirman sometimes feels like he’s in a different room from others. And he should; he plays the outsider. But Ali Hakim has never been seamlessly integrated into most of the show’s productions, likely because the joke is either on him or on the rest of the city. Most interpretations of Ali are based on the fact that he is an extremely borscht-belt Jew, and since a Jew would probably be less than welcome in the days of the tightly knit rural territories, he presents himself as a Persian ” exotic â, but conducts its dialogue and business with a heavy dose of New York Yiddish seasoning. It was probably funny, and not in the worst of tastes, in the 1940s. But he doesn’t really play today without being either overused ethnic humor or just plain racist. Instead, Mirman and Fish rearranged the role to keep the same ânot quite what they’re supposed to beâ type of character without the Catskills baggage. Instead of a Jew barely closed off in the Wild West, Mirman plays Ali Hakim as an implicitly queer city dweller at odds with the alternate world around him. It’s a bit fairy-like, a bit chic, but it’s not a caricature. His seductive Ado Annie is played out as a man who loves to flirt and is terrified when taken seriously. The throwaway joke at the end of the show, “Do you want to marry Will too?” more like good-humored teasing and less like the thick-headed highlander humor it is often used for. The new interpretation (like Jud also) doesn’t always work, but it works more often than it does and is the closest I’ve ever seen to seeing an Ali Hakim working implicitly.
There is a lot to be said about how this show or production represents rural culture as violent, conservative, islander, fanatic or even fascist. And that is certainly implied: but there is an ambiguity, as there will always be when a new interpretation is readapted on old material. Is Jud the monster that he is (and this production makes it clear that he is) on his own, or because of macho men like Curly who intimidate the sweetest, sweetest specimens? What happens when we take charge of the law … or when the law allows us to take our own righteousness? This is all really, terribly topical, but I’m not going to pontificate on it. See the show. Sit through both acts even if your purist heart rebels against it. And THEN love it, or complain about it. But it will be the one you will brag about seeing for years to come.