Theater Review: Reimagined “Oklahoma!” Hints America Is Not O.K.

Theater Review: Reimagined “Oklahoma!” Hints America Is Not O.K.

Director Daniel Fish’s radically reimagined production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! was originally workshopped in 2015; after a Tony-winning Broadway run, a national tour officially opened last night in Minneapolis, where it’s playing through Sunday. 2015 feels like a billion years ago, but that eon has only increased the resonance and relevance of a show that dramatizes the deadly consequences of aggrieved, entitled masculinity in a nation full of firearms.

While Thursday’s crowd at the Orpheum Theatre rose to cheers — and, in some cases, to their feet — for boisterous numbers like the exuberant actor Sis’s lusty rendition of “I Cain’t Say No,” the audience was also clearly challenged by the production’s deliberately disorienting zigs and zags. (The crowd’s demographics were predictable for a touring Broadway classic: in their masks, half the men could have passed for Governor Tim Walz.)

With a quick-step flow that disrupts expectations for stagy applause invitations, the production alternately presents itself as a modestly refreshed revival, a campy singalong, and a subversive reinvention. The final scene lands firmly on the latter note, with a rendition of “Oklahoma” bleaker than one might have imagined at the opening of Act II, let alone before stepping into the theater.

It’s a pointed challenge to the many culturally complacent productions that have come before, but it also has the effect of shaking the dust off one of the most influential works of American art ever created, reclaiming Oklahoma! as a product of the modernist era. The dream ballet, for example, becomes a showcase for solo dancer Gabrielle Hamilton, who dramatizes the pained undercurrents of a community where men just cain’t stop fighting over women.

The show’s top note is a spicy one, apparent from the outset as Curly (Sean Grandillo) turns his silly song about a surrey into a slow-burning seduction that’ll singe your chaps. Before that, though, he unfurls the iconic “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” with blithe, unhurried polish as the rest of the cast lounges dispassionately at tables laden with cans of cheap beer. It may be a beautiful mornin’ for the cock of the walk, the show implies, but a sense of menacing malaise is also afoot.

The production’s most fascinating aspect is the nimbleness with which Fish flips the script — which, in a literal sense, remains unaltered from the original text. Not every classic musical could take this kind of stress test; a recent revival of Paint Your Wagon, for example, tossed the original book entirely to recast the songs in a more palatable context. In the case of Oklahoma!, though, the script by Oscar Hammerstein II shines all the more when cast in a new light. Fish and his diverse cast surface an itchy, randy energy that’s refreshingly sex-positive. Ado Annie cain’t say no…nor does she need or want to.

This interpretation even finds a current of lust between farm girl Laurey (Sasha Hutchings) and hired hand Jud, played by Christopher Bannow as a stringy-haired, unshaven, eerily calm outsider who’s visibly ready to ensure that any and all of the “intentionally staggering” number of guns that appear onstage in the first act go off in the second. He’s not the only one bringing a gun to town, though, and the show’s most challenging choice is to implicate happy hero Curly as complicit in the community’s culture of toxic bravado.

That all makes the show sound like a heavy slab of message, but in fact it may well be the most entertaining Oklahoma! you’ll ever see. The cast fill Laura Jellinek’s brightly wood-paneled, banner-festooned set with effusive energy that’s all the more involving for being cast in an ironic light. The show’s music is performed by an onstage Americana ensemble, giving the timeless songs a gratifyingly period-specific flavor while cautiously guarding against the encroachment of nostalgia.

Not everything works, and that’s fine. When it comes to a technique involving a blackout and closely-miked dialogue, a little bit would have gone a long way; instead, we get a lot. On Thursday the cast seemed to be still finding the show’s rhythm — and, perhaps, adapting to the strange energy of a nervously vaxxed live audience. If they didn’t nail every beat, though, the beats were clearly there. The difference in this production is that, for perhaps the first time in the long history of this well-worn musical, we can also hear the off-beats.

Jay Gabler

Photo by Matt Murphy for MurphyMade, courtesy Hennepin Theatre Trust.