OKLAHOMA!Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Music by Richard Rodgers
Directed by Daniel Fish
Stage Manager – Andrew Bacigalupo
Orchestrations and Arrangements – Daniel Kluger
Music Supervision – Nathan Koci
Music Direction – Andy Collopy
Music Coordinator – John Miller
Choreographer – John Heginbotham
Scenic Design – Laura Jellinek
Projection Design – Joshua Thorson
Special Effects – Jeremy Chernick
Lighting Design – Scott Zielinski
Sound Design – Drew Levy
Costume Design – Terese Wadden
Sasha Hutchings – Laurey Williams
Sean Grandillo – Curly McLain
Christopher Bannow – Jud Fry
Sis – Ado Annie Carnes.
Hennessy Winkler – Will Parker
Benj Mirman – Ali Hakim
Barbara Walsh – Aunt Eller
Hannah Solow – Gertie Cummings
Scott Redmond – Mike (this performance)
Ugo Chukwu – Cord Elam
Mitch Tebo – Andrew Carnes
Cameron Anika Hill – Lead Dancer (this performance)
Understudies – Gillian Hassert, Hunter Hoffman, Gwynne Wood, Jordan Wynn
Andy Collopy – Accordion, Drums, and Conductor
Dominic Lamorte – Upright Bass, Assoc Conductor
Rick Snell – Mandolin, Electric Guitar
Liz Faure – Pedal Steel, Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar
Justin Hiltner – Banjo
Libby Weitnauer – Violin
Leah Coloff – Cello
Reviewed Performance: 6/1/2022
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The ‘50s also saw deeply disturbing events in America, with racial tensions, McCarthy hearings, Watergate, and political demigods trying to subvert the American system. I grew up in a white southern state where prejudice and discrimination were “just the way it is.” Yet, for brief moments, I could get away from my black and white TV news and live in a fantasy world. If Oklahoma! had darker themes, I was too young to see them, and productions since that 1943 opening wrapped them in a soft pursuit of love, “aw-shucks” reactions to evil, and orchestral overtures. For decades, this was the norm in most musical theater.
In time, new generation artists reimagined the classics with an emphasis on diversity and reality, reflecting life as we see it today. Like reimagining Shakespeare, the older musicals are being updated for new audiences living in the real world.
Such is the case with the latest production of Oklahoma!, which is now playing at the Winspear Opera House under the production of Broadway Dallas. This new version won the 2019 Tony Award winner for Best Revival of a Musical.
The story idea for Oklahoma! came to Rogers and Hammerstein from Green Grows the Lilacs, written by playwright Lynn Riggs in 1930. Interestingly, this rarely performed play was produced in Dallas in 1932 and 1935 at the long-gone Little Theater of Dallas.
This new production, directed by Daniel Fish, was developed in 2015 and eventually made it to Broadway for its opening. It played to packed houses (pre-Covid) for over 2,000 performances, leading to its eight Tony nominations. But Fish’s vision explores the more violent aspects of the story more deeply. Despite using original music, text, and lyrics, we were expected to feel those shocking events and leave with a different sense of our current world.
To make this new vision, the production team stripped normal staging to create a story that takes covers one place and time, with a nod to Aristotle’s Poetics rules for tragedy. Production design upended the norm, putting all performers on stage most of the time with scenes playing out as uninvolved actors watched with the audience. The orchestra consisted of a seven-piece string band on-stage with performers that could play multiple instruments for styles such as country, rock, country-rock, hard-rock, and varying degrees of any kind of sound emotion needed by the story. Andy Collopy, musician, and on-stage conductor synced closely with the dynamics to play with singers’ emotional expression while toying with the audience.
Scenic Design by Laura Jellinek included a barn dance hall that filled the large Winspear stage, dressed in bright pinewood walls and flooring with celebration party flags floating above. There were large family-sized picnic tables in a similar bright wood and wooden folding chairs to match. Recessed paneled doorways were hidden until used in the back and side walls. Both sidewalls were adorned with wall-mounted gun racks, 24 I think, each holding two to five early-1900s rifles. The exceptionally large back wall was also a projection surface where an idyllic territorial prairie scene showed several prairie houses, one with an actively smoking chimney.
This projection design by Joshua Thorson included the living back scene, but also became a surface for some of the most interesting projection scenes I’ve seen, including live on-stage ultra-closeup camera shots of actors in near-total stage darkness which filled the back wall. This visual effect, when combined with other special effects by Jeremy Chernick and Scott Zielinski’s stark lighting designs, was ultra-bright to allow wood colors to pop, but at times dimmed, and at others totally dark, Fish’s themes jumped off the stage. There were bright headlamps with a shocking color at one point that pushed the action right into the audience. When combined with Drew Levy’s sound design, including loud gunshots and even louder disjointed snippets of Rogers’ music, this story became extreme when violence and menace played out, often in darkness.
Terese Wadden designed one of the most eclectic sets of costumes I’ve seen. Seemingly a mash of territorial dresses, jeans, and country blouses along with current-day small-town work wear was supplemented by a few standout costumes. Ado Annie’s noticeably short jean skirt and tie-dyed loose top mixed with Will Parker’s ornate rodeo garb, complete with chaps. There was short hair and long hair. Actor tattoos were allowed. And boots were rampant, even with short dresses. You can see much of this on any night at Billy Bob’s Texas. Going by costumes, you couldn’t determine the period from clothing, though there was a clear inclination towards western wear.
Oklahoma! is marked by a series of iconic scenes that mark the milestones in the story arc. Each of these contains a bit of dialog and a song. This new version has all the songs and scenes, so people who have seen earlier productions or movies can easily follow along. It’s two love triangle stories. One is between Curly McClain and Laurie Williams and a jealous suitor for Laurie named Judd Fry. A subplot involves Ado Annie Carnes and Will Parker, and a suitor who woos Ado Annie, but then unwillingly gets roped into a real relationship. One explores the comic shotgun wedding aspect of prairie life and the other explores the result of dangerous obsession and jealous anger. In both cases, the girl is faced with difficult choices. And, of course, the pre-statehood war over farmer’s fences and water rights pits ranch cowboys against settled farmers. This story has lots of conflicts to work through. Someone pays the ultimate price.
Curly McClain, played by Sean Grandillo, is a cowboy who’s sweet on Laurie. Laurie, played by Sasha Hutchings, is co-owner of a farm, with Aunt Eller, played by Barbara Walsh. Jud Fry is a hired hand obsessed with Laurie. Like most young lovers, there’s a lot of innocent sparking, teasing, and questioning. These are played out in Surrey with the Fringe on Top and People Will Say We’re in Love, two of the most famous songs in musical theater. Grandillo was a troubadour, wielding his acoustic guitar around the stage as he sang of love and promising futures. His balladeer tenor voice was great for these more melodious songs. Purity of tone and nuanced phrasing, bending and teasing notes, with a flair for improv timing made these songs come to life.
Sasha Hutchings is a Broadway veteran, having played Laurie in the 2018-2019 Broadway run, but also as part of the Broadway and movie version of Hamilton. Her soprano range allowed her to push the lyrics to show a deep conundrum for Laurie while deciding how to manage the love triangle. Her songs ranged from a sweet innocent Laurie to some ballsy sex appeal. When Hutchings and Grandillo sang duets, even while they sparred over missed intentions, there was no doubt about the love growing between their characters.
Christopher Bannow’s Jud Fry was a much darker personality than is usually seen. He spent much time on stage just silently watching Laurie and Curly interact. He only has two songs; Poor Jud is Dead and Lonely Room. But when Bannow started feeling these songs, especially Lonely Room, it was palpably tense, even depressing. Unlike other versions, he revealed loneliness and pain that could drive someone insane. Although we saw Jud menace Laurie and hated him for that, we could hear why it happened, and almost found some pity with a new understanding for him. Whether singing or watching him on stage watching other characters prance around, we could see his seething hate build. He became a pathetic character through Bannow’s subtext.
Will Parker arrives, fresh from his rodeo wins in Kansas City, with money to get his love, Ado Annie Carnes. Will, played with the most outgoing cowboy look, with a bronco-riding gait, leather chaps, rider’s hat, and tattoos, is a quintessential cowboy. You could imagine Hennessy Winkler, who played Will, had just gotten off a bull at the Fort Worth Stockyards. He had a strong storytelling voice, singing and speaking, with a truer western US accent than the others, as he described his time in Kansas City and his duet with Ado Annie in All Er Nuthin’ at the end. But Will Parker is primarily a comic character, carrying the theme of the dumb cowboy. He's a bit dim. Winkler used a tight comic timing to add the levity to the darker atmosphere in this production. It’s a funny show if you eliminate the old-style charm for reality. But Winkler’s personal story may be one of the more interesting actor stories here. In 2000 Winkler played Ado Annie, as a girl. Today, he’s playing Will Parker as a man. His personal trans story is worth reading about by those interested in how diversification is becoming common and less discussed in theater, aside from the occasional reviewer.
When you finish learning about Winkler, check out another trans actor in Oklahoma!, known simply as Sis, playing Ado Annie Carnes, the character Winkler played in 2000. Sis is larger than life on stage and in real life and her presence sent waves of energy through Winspear’s large auditorium the moment she stood up. Ado Annie in the story is a bit slow of mind and loose with her lips. She’s the perfect match for Will Parker. But Sis took this character and put all her phenomenal vocal power and energy into her performance. Though she uses mics, I doubt she needed them. Her voice is one of the strongest I’ve heard in many years – a Mahalia Jackson power that fills your chest cavity. She is physically bigger than most of the cast, but her personality does not override them. Although she sang with the cast on most songs, her exposition songs are I Can’t Say No, which explains Ado Annie’s loose lips, and All Er Nuthin’ in the duet with Winkler. I Can’t Say No is like Ado Annie’s anthem, allowing Sis to range from a demure quiet description of how she feels when guys “talk purty” and then explode into a concert like she was in a large stadium. In earlier productions, this character is key but almost understated. Sis made her a force of nature.
Ali Hakim, played by Benj Mirman, is the Persian peddler who sells people what they don’t need and makes hay with the local girls. In this case, he made hay with Ado Annie, who was promised to Will Parker. But her father, Andrew, played by Mitch Tebo, decides his shotgun will unite her with Ali. So, Ali spends the rest of the show trying to get out of love while pretending to be in love. Mirman’s main song is It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage! Mirman took this lament about Ali’s sudden betrothal to the guys, and he played out his frustration emotionally, physically, and vocally. (A little technical hint: Mix his vocals to the band so we hear his words. They’re hilarious if we can understand them.) Most of Ali’s time is dialog, as he tries to help Will Parker get Ado Addie through Parker’s bumbling and ignorance. This storyline was the main comic thread saving the dark themes from falling into the abyss. Mirman and Winkler were a pleasure to watch – an Abbott and Costello.
The original production has a 15-minute key dream sequence that plays out Laurie’s nightmares. This orchestral number includes stylized and pantomimed performances by extras portraying Curly, Laurie, and Jud. This was, at the time, a dance sequence seldom seen before choreographed by a fledgling Agnes de Mille. That sequence has run through productions since, depending on the talents of the local dancers and actors. This production used a single dancer, extreme, innovative effects, and music, recorded and stage-played, to fill out the various musical themes. It eliminated the extra mimes. It opened Act 2 and only lasted 10-minutes, but it was a powerful scene! The Lead Dancer, who for this performance was Cameron Anika Hill, created the dream through her interpreted movement, sometimes ballet, a little rock, other times jazz, but most often what appeared to be an improvised post-modern expressive dance – okay, I’ll admit failure at describing this. I’ll just say that there was not one moment of that scene when anyone could look away. It conveyed Laurie’s dilemma without words or mimics. It was mesmerizing.
Every actor, even musicians, actively interacted with the story, as if dedicated to making this story come alive with its new shared vision. Aunt Eller, played by Barbara Walsh, was in most all scenes, but held sway with Many a New Day and The Farmer and the Cowman. She is the glue that holds this story together. But the text and many songs were written for the whole cast. They sang little snippets of songs with great voices all, and made the big ensemble songs, like Oklahoma, rousing anthems to the positivity that eventually comes out of the darkness.
There was some grousing in a few earlier reviews and comments I read, as some people just didn’t get the new direction. I saw a few old souls walk out during this performance, upset with the changes. But on the train home, a younger musical theater fan said, “It was the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
To prepare I watched an authorized, exact recreation by the University of North Carolina from 2015 of that opening production on March 31, 1943. It was a duplicate in every technical and production aspect. It now appears on YouTube. But be prepared if you’re stuck in the old innocence versions, in what is portrayed and how easily it blunted audience reactions.
There were fights, affairs, shotgun weddings, kangaroo courts, jealous anger, discrimination, murder, kidnap, 1900’s nudity, gunplay, and apathy to a crime. Sound familiar? We see that on nightly TV, in the news and online video news. Daniel Fish’s vision shows a more accurate, menacing life in a 1900s pre-Oklahoma territory. I attended prepared to be disappointed, to question why we should modernize our classics. I walked away a fan. This version may become a definitive version.
In the 1950s, the classic musicals opened my eyes to an unknown world. In 2022, I discovered a new lesson: Be open to the artistic visions of daring innovators and see the world in new ways. Kudos to Broadway Dallas for the courage to bring this show to Dallas. I heartily recommend Oklahoma! to everyone who cares about theater, both classical and new. It’ll open your eyes in new ways. I’ll let you decide if you like that.
Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora Street, Dallas, TX. 75201
Plays through June 12
Tuesdays-Sundays at 7:30pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30pm
Single tickets start at $40 (pricing subject to change) and are on sale now at BroadwayDallas.org or by phone at 800-982-2787. Orders for groups of ten (10) or more may be placed by calling (214) 426-4768 or emailing Groups@BroadwayDallas.org
Note: Recommended for children ages 12 and up. Production contains fog, loud gunshot effects, moments of darkness and violence. Run time is 2 hours and 45-minutes with intermission.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit broadwaydallas.org/shows/Oklahoma