The iconic musical Oklahoma! was overdue for an overhaul, but who could have foreseen what Director Daniel Fish would conceive as the gloriously edgy production now in town at Kennedy Center? The 80-year-old book and lyrics are the same, the melodies are the same — Rogers & Hammerstein are in the house — but their horse-and-buggy of a show has been stripped down and rebuilt as a zippy electric vehicle for zeitgeist sex and politics. And what an exciting ride it is.
The story, set in 1906 in the titular territory on the cusp of statehood, is ostensibly about tensions between farmers and cattle ranchers — whom a song exhorts to be friends by dancing with each other’s daughters (and presumably intermarrying). Women as chattel (the word is akin to cattle) is a theme that runs throughout and shows up literally in the bride price that Ado Annie’s father demands of her smitten suitor, bronco buster Will Parker.
In this historically accurate cultural context — which the original musical romanticizes till the cows come home — we are introduced to two young women, each of whom is torn between two men. Ado Annie is enamored of not only Will, a cowboy, but also Ali Hakim, a traveling peddler whose heritage is Persian (Iranian today). Laurey meanwhile is courted by both Curly McLain, also a cowboy, and Jud Fry, her depressive hired hand. So do the foreigner and the maybe malevolent malcontent get these two gals or do the all-American-type cowboys? Take a wild guess.
Looked at today, the 1940s book and lyrics — which devote a lot of stage time to portraying Laurey’s and Ado Annie’s mate competitions as suspenseful — are saddled with a passel of heteronormative tropes. Early on in the show, for instance, one of those tropes breaks into song, Ado Annie’s “I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say No,” which, post–#MeToo, is tantamount to singing, “Hi, I’ll be your doormat.” So I went to the Eisenhower Theater very curious about how that song in particular would play.
I could not have been more surprised. Daniel Fish’s staging is iconoclastic from the get-go (which I’ll get to). But at the point when Ado Annie sings this song, the show pivots to full-on subversive. Cast to play Ado Annie is Sis (she goes by one name), who tears into that song and commands the stage. A force of nature with take-no-prisoners sexual agency, this Ado Annie could intimidate every #himtoo himbo in her way.
She turns out to be too much for the peddler Ali Hakim (thankfully unstereotyped in Benj Mirman’s nuanced portrayal), but the doting cowboy Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler as a dude with earnestly honest charm) cain’t get enough. In the second act, Will and Ado Annie have a song called “All Er Nothin’” in which he demands that she not be unfaithful even though he can play the field. The song, though lighthearted and melodically upbeat, is basically a paean to a man’s claim on a woman’s body as his property.
In what must be a first in Broadway musical history, both Ado Annie and Will are played by actors who are trans. Their voices singly and together are fantastic; their onstage interplay is super fun. And the salutary effect of this casting is a rebalancing of the characters’ gender dynamics and thus a fundamental recalibration of their love story: The script’s underlying woman-as-property presumptions get held up to view for what they are. The songs and storyline are exactly as they were written. They have not been redeemed. But they have been radically re-seen. (See “Actress/activist Sis organizes ‘Trans March on Broadway’ for respect and visibility” by DCMTA’s Deb Miller.)
Throughout the show, the song styling and instrumentation are also radically transformed. From the very first notes of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” sung with soulful singularity by Sean Grandillo as Curly, guitar in hand, we hear subtexts and shadings we never could before. When Curly is joined by the shimmering voice of Sasha Hutchins belting as Laurey, we hear even more of the rich vocal inflections of country-western and bluegrass that become the musical throughline and emotional heartline of the show. And when Curly boasts to Laurey of “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” in which he wants to take her for a ride, he sings and moves with an undercurrent of sexual seduction that surely would have been too explicit for the 1940s.
The orchestra, on stage mostly the whole time, is made up mainly of strings — acoustic and electric guitars, a banjo, a mandolin, a cello, upright bass — that will sometimes squeal, twang, and howl like a hoedown from on high (the orchestrations and arrangements are by Daniel Kluger).
The singing will sometimes sound growly, yodelly, sometimes on mics with selective reverb and subwoofer, but the ensemble sings throughout with a similar commitment to expressing the characters’ truth not simply for pretty’s sake. To my ears, the voices in this company surpass those on the very excellent original Broadway cast album (available below). And I can attest that the acoustics for this roadshow, even from the back of the house, are very good indeed (sound design is by Drew Levy).
The scenic design by Laura Jellinek places the story in a spare unspecific space lined with plywood, bare except for the mural painted on the upstage wall showing expansive fields and two distant houses. The stage is set with plain wood tables and chairs, and pots of food, stacks of corn on the cob, and six-packs of Bud Light suggest a downhome social occasion with festive fringe on top. But the walls stage left and right tell a darker story, a gun show, racks and racks of rifles mounted three tiers high.
The ensemble enters dressed as if for a contemporary country-western-themed party (Terese Wadden designed the costumes). Their choreography (John Heginbotham) is consistently character-specific, never show-off-y, meaning there are some inventively uninhibited takes on frontier dancing, like a lot of butt slapping.
The lighting by Scott Zielinski is generally broad daylight except during a couple of scenes played expressionistically in an all-red or -green wash and one played to shattering effect in pitch darkness. The shocker is the smokehouse scene in which Curly, in a song called “Pore Jud Is Dead,” tries to talk his rival Jud Fry into committing suicide. The scene is done in blackout as an eerie audio play punctuated by a huge live video feed of Jud’s troubled visage on the upstage wall (projection design by Joshua Thorson). It’s not only the haunting stagecraft that makes the scene a stunner; it’s Christopher Bannow’s unnerving performance as Jud, who seems simultaneously menacing and deeply troubled.
Only once during the show did I sense that its iconoclasm went off course. The dream ballet, famously choreographed for the Broadway premiere and the film by Agnes de Mille, is intended to have a narrative depicting Laurey’s indecision between Curly and Jud (the dream is supposedly induced by an opiate tincture she got from the peddler). Fish has wisely moved the arguably superfluous ballet from the end of Act One to the top of Act Two. But the episode has been reconceived as a fevered callisthenic solo with no semblance of a storyline. The Lead Dancer, Gabrielle Hamilton wearing an incongruously sparkly T-shirt that says Dream Baby Dream, is wonderfully and gracefully athletic as she moves to a raw Jimmy Hendrix-style guitar accompaniment. But the character-driven narrative of Laurey’s hallucination is gone, so it’s never clear who this dancer is or how she got in the plot.
But that misstep is an exception to the extraordinary vision and assurance Fish has brought to his direction of the rest of this classic. Not ten minutes in, I found myself wishing such a refresh could be done on other aging musicals in the American canon. Here’s just one instance of his insightful directorial touch: At more than half a dozen points during the show, he inserts a caesura, a brief pause when actors are still such that we can feel we might fill the portentous silence with content of our own. It’s a form of audience engagement I’ve never experienced before. It goes by very fast. It’s not dead air; it’s different. It’s a moment to share in the show’s rethinking of received meaning and reimagining of everything.
Running Time: Two Hours 45 minutes, including one intermission.
Rogers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! plays through April 10, 2022, in the Eisenhower Theater at The Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($69–$150), call (202) 467-4600 or go online.
The Oklahoma! program is online here.
COVID Safety: Proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 is required to attend all indoor performances and events at the Kennedy Center. Masks are required regardless of vaccination status. Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan is here.
Original cast album
Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, with original dances by Agnes de Mille
Directed by Daniel Fish
Sasha Hutchings as Laurey Williams
Sean Grandillo as Curly McLain
Christopher Bannow as Jud Fry
Sis as Ado Annie Carnes
Hennessy Winkler as Will Parker
Benj Mirman as Ali Hakim
Barbara Walsh as Aunt Eller
Hannah Solow as Gertie Cummings
Patrick Clanton as Mike
Ugo Chukwu as Cord Elam
Mitch Tebo (Andrew Carnes)
Gabrielle Hamilton (Lead Dancer)
Understudies: Gillian Hassert, Cameron Anika Hill, Hunter Hoffman, Scott Redmond, Gwynne Wood, and Jordan Wynn
John Heginbotham (New Choreography)
Daniel Kluger (Orchestrations/Arrangements)
Nathan Koci (Music Supervision)
Andy Collopy (Music Direction)
Casting by Taylor Williams and Borna Barzin
Laura Jellinek (Scenic Design)
Terese Wadden (Costume Design)
Scott Zielinski (Lighting Design)
Drew Levy (Sound Design)
Joshua Thorson (Projection Design)
Production stage management: Andrew Bacigalupo, Rachael Wilkin, and Jordan Wynn