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  • Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

At PPAC: Oklahoma! re-imagined

The Oklahoma! you will see at the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC) through March 27 isn’t your grandparents’ version of the iconic musical.

The script is the same – not a word has been altered – and so, essentially, is the score, but the staging, the emphasis, the blocking, and the costumes are far distant from the traditional presentation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.

Directed by Daniel Fish, this new take on the renowned 1943 show won a Tony Award in 2019 for Best Revival of a Musical. With its shifts in perspective and performance style, the re-interpretation comes across as a radical change.

Its point of view is anchored by current day social justice theories and non-traditional readings of the characters’ motivations. It is not unreasonable to think some audience members might be tempted to view it as “Woke-lahoma.”

According to playwright and theatre writer Thomas Hischak, “Not only is Oklahoma! the most important of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, it is also the single most influential work in the American musical theatre....It is the first fully integrated musical play and its blending of song, character, plot and even dance would serve as the model for Broadway shows for decades.”

So says Hischak. Not any longer, perhaps.

The Daily Beast has said of the revamp: “Forget your traditional idea of Oklahoma! Daniel Fish’s daring, utterly absorbing reinterpretation is different – brilliantly so.”

Like beauty, brilliance is in the eye of the beholder, so you will have to make up your own mind, but, hey, isn’t that where re-appraisal and renewal of relevance come from when evaluating art?

In this version Curly, played by Sean Grandillo, isn’t the heroic cowboy type of the old Oklahoma! Ordinary looking with an unruly thatch, he is awesome with a guitar and possessed of a strong voice, but he doesn’t suggest the romantic ideal.

Jud Fry, his rough-hewn, ominous competitor for the affections of Laurey Williams, is portrayed by Broadway cast member Christopher Bannow, not as the usual, unpredictable, menacing hot head, but more like a depressed narcissist.

On opening night at PPAC, Cameron Anika Hill appeared as Laurey for Sasha Hutchings who understudied the part on Broadway before stepping into the role for this national tour. Hill has a commendable voice, but seemed a bit subdued.

The famed dream ballet that comes halfway through the show was conceived by the legendary Agnes DeMille. It is considered a path-breaking element in the original musical. There it was an introspective vision into Laurey’s emotions with respect to her relationships, played out in a dream sequence with both Jud and Curly and other dancers representing figures from Jud’s lurid imagination.

Here it is a solo dance that expresses Laurey’s inner conflicts. The mood is conveyed by her frenetic expressions of anxiety, confusion, determination, and strength. Gabrielle Hamilton, who also was in the Broadway company, is the lead dancer in the touring show, but the athletic Jordan Wynn danced on opening night at PPAC. She did well.

Oklahoma! in any iteration is a complex and textured story. Depicting as it does the changing landscape of America circa 1907, it suggests a panoramic image of the developing nation as signified by a territory on the verge of becoming a state.

The people are resilient and hardy, clannish and independent all at once. They rely on one another, but they are also individualistic. At its center the story incorporates an idealized picture of the collective character of the territory while excusing the unsavory compromises necessary to perpetuate the image of a wholesome community.

The coverup of the violent resolution of the love triangle of Curly, Jud, and Laurey via a sham murder trial seems a whole lot more sinister and calculated in this presentation.

There is a parallel love triangle among Ado Annie, cowpoke Will Parker, and the traveling peddler, Ali Hakim, (played respectively by Sis, Hennessy Winkler, and Benj Mirman). They extract the humor inherent in their scenes, but they also verge into the poignancy that underlays their roles.

Barbara Walsh is solid as Aunt Eller; Gertie Cummings, who ironically ends up married to Ali Hakim instead of Ado Annie, is played by an exuberant Hannah Solow at a grating comic pitch.

The music is well-done for the most part. The barn dance orchestra exhibits some impressive chops.

There are several high concept staging devices that will enhance or detract from your enjoyment of the show according to your taste. For instance, a good part of the key scene between Curly and Jud when Curly suggests Jud might want to consider suicide is done in the dark, allowing the audience to only hear the dialogue but not see the actors. At other times the house lights remain on for certain scenes.

Also, for much of the first act a good many of the performers remain static, sitting at picnic tables, moving little. The set is dressed with gun racks containing 114 rifles and shotguns, offering a silent commentary on the part that firearms played in early 20th century America and, by logical extension, play even more today.

The re-imagined production succeeds in establishing the irony in “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” and makes the title song “Oklahoma” feel poignantly two-edged at the finish.

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