The company of the national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA!. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! has long been one of those “Broadway standards” that gets performed with impressive frequency, despite its age. As such, most modern viewers are more than familiar with the story of two men, “heroic” Curly (Hunter Hoffman at the opening night performance) and creepy Jud (Christopher Bannow), fighting for the love of one woman, Laurey (Sasha Hutchings) back in 1906. However, the latest production of the show, darkly directed by Daniel Fish and onstage now at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), puts a new spin on the tale and exposes some of the troubling themes and problematic undertones that were there all along.
It's clear right from the start that this is an OKLAHOMA! like no other. Even before the opening, the stage is mostly monotone in color, albeit for a few brightly colored garland banners strung across the top. They create a sort of festive atmosphere, which serves as a nice counterbalance to the production’s dark themes and also makes viewers question what unfolds. Is this really the cheery, funny musical they’ve seen (or at least heard of) countless times before? The new setting, the somber delivery, and the staging say “no,” but yet, much of the story and script remains unchanged. The result is an unsettling but intriguing viewing experience, one that is particularly effective for those acquainted with the show. In their case, Fish has taken something familiar and changed it into something completely new, which is no easy feat.
Similarly, the casting and directorial choices take the characters from stock to startling, allowing viewers to experience them differently than ever before. Ado Annie, for example, is no longer flighty, flirty, and cutesy. Instead, she’s big, bold, and embracing her budding sexuality, thanks to a charming performance by Sis. Likewise, Laurey isn’t a mere prize to be won. Hutchings’ purposefully dry and somber delivery turns her into a brooding, complex character with self-destructive tendencies and a penchant for being drawn toward darkness.
The male characters take on new life as well. Bannow’s perfectly-acted Jud is still scary, but audience members actually care about why. With allusions to self-hatred, struggles with mental illness, and attractions he’s not allowed to explore, Jud becomes an interesting character, not one viewers will root for exactly, but at least one viewers care about and can do more than hate. On the flip side, Curly is no longer just some worthy hero who gets the girl. He’s problematic and somewhat mean-spirited.
Add all of this to a never-changing set, video close-ups of the actors’ faces during tense moments, lights that are either too bright or a pitch-black room, and the result is not just a whole new OKLAHOMA!, but a whole new theatre experience in general. It feels uncomfortable. It feels confusing. It’s shocking. It’s scary. It’s gross. It makes you think. In short, it’s actual art. Daring, discombobulating, and downright trippy at times, the production thrusts viewers not just into a new state, but into a new way of thinking of this and other classic musical scripts. It’s more than just a reimagining; it’s a genre-questioning reinvention made for the modern age.
One thing, and only one thing, is for certain. Viewers need to leave their expectations at the door. This is an OKLAHOMA! that surprises, astounds, and leaves plenty of room for thought. It’s important, effective, and unforgettable, the sort of show that will be go down in theatre history and be talked about for years to come.
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