Review: Daniel Fish’s brooding, deconstructed ‘Oklahoma!’ electrifies the Ahmanson

Of all of the spectacular feats director Daniel Fish pulls off in his thrilling deconstruction of “Oklahoma!,” essentially the most spectacular could be that in deromanticizing the musical he by some means manages to not kill off the romance on the coronary heart of the present.

This Tony-winning revival arrives on the Ahmanson Theatre, the place it opened Thursday, bearing a large number of pink flags. A “Know Before You Go” e-mail from Heart Theatre Group spells out that this modern-dress manufacturing options “actors of different races, backgrounds, sexualities, gender identities, and religions in a company of storytellers reflecting the rich diversity of America.”

Customary follow within the higher echelons of the American theater lately, however somebody is nervous about one thing. The supply of this nervousness comes into focus later within the e-mail: “What was once seen as a nostalgic and romantic vision of an idealistic prairie community with a tinge of brewing conflict is now a provocative, gritty, and sexy 21st-century commentary on America’s dark and oppressive histories.”

Theatergoers, significantly these with a passion for the golden age of Broadway, may be militantly protecting of basic American musicals. “Oklahoma!” sits on the middle of this custom. However this bracing trendy manufacturing isn’t attempting to begin a tradition struggle. It simply needs us to see the present with contemporary eyes.

The 1943 musical by Richard Rodgers, who wrote the music, and Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the e book and lyrics, represents a leap in kind within the integration of story and music that started years earlier with Hammerstein’s collaboration with Jerome Kern on “Show Boat.” The success of “Oklahoma!” helped consolidate the e book musical’s rise over gag-packed revues, through which musical numbers might be handed from one present to a different, so tenuous was their relationship to a bigger plot.

Fred Zinnemann’s 1955 movie, starring Gordon MacRae as Curly and Shirley Jones as Laurey, the cussed younger lovers decided to not betray their emotions for one another, introduced “Oklahoma!” and its sensible Broadway craftsmanship to the lots. However extra importantly, the imaginative and prescient of America emanating from the large display, with its glistening cornfields and folksy goodness and ease, was instantly integrated right into a nation’s vanity.

“Oklahoma!” isn’t just a musical however a cornerstone of the American delusion. What’s ironic about that is that Hammerstein’s e book, derived from Lynn Riggs’ play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” doesn’t stint from displaying the sordid underside and lawlessness of American life.

Sexual violence lurks within the background of the story. Laurey hides in the home a lot of the day to keep away from coming into contact with Jud, a employed hand on the farm she runs with Aunt Eller. A social outcast with a shady previous, Jud has turn into obsessive about Laurey, who hears him pacing outdoors her window at evening, like a predator ready to pounce on a meal it has decided no different competitor will ever get pleasure from.

Curly is the person Laurey can’t get out of her thoughts, however her refusal to submit simply to his cocky affections retains Jud’s hopes alive. When she agrees to go along with Jud to a dance social, tensions explode between the lads. Threats are made, weapons are drawn and justice within the territory of turn-of-the-century Oklahoma, which isn’t but a state however on the verge of changing into one, is capricious and typically bloody.

Whereas it’s not technically correct to say, as CTG’s e-mail does, that the “revival is radically different from the original production without changing a word of the original text,” Fish in lots of respects hews nearer than most to what Hammerstein wrote, at the least till the ending, which requires some sleight of hand with the script.

Hennessy Winkler, left, and Sis in Daniel Fish’s revival of “Oklahoma!”

(Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman / MurphyMade)

The thrust of Fish’s staging is to get us to listen to the musical drama in all its completely different registers. To that finish, the characters communicate to at least one one other virtually as in the event that they had been attending a gathering. Their phrases, delivered with out undue distraction, assume pleasure of place.

The actors are arrayed on a set by Laura Jellinek that resembles a ramshackle group corridor. A backdrop of Oklahoma panorama doesn’t reveal lush farmland however dry, unyielding prairie.

Settlers on this non-Edenic patch of earth have to be robust and hardy. It’s no shock then that the social interactions are tough and tumble. Intercourse is the primary obsession, leaving a festive ambiance that’s each extremely charged and extremely harmful. There’s nothing dainty concerning the mating rituals in these elements.

Fish maintains a Brechtian distance between actor and function. Curly, performed by Sean Grandillo with the guitar-slinging aplomb of a country-and-western recording star, has the straightest of hair. It is a minor disconnect, but it surely’s winked at by a manufacturing that has way more flamboyant methods up its sleeve.

In defamiliarizing the standard trappings of the musical, Fish modifications the way it even sounds. The parade of heavenly musical numbers are orchestrated and organized by Daniel Kluger for twenty first century sensibilities. The band, inconspicuous however seen in the back of the set, slides simply between gently conventional and starkly up to date modes beneath the music route of Andy Collopy.

A woman and man sing together onstage under a spotlight.

Sasha Hutchings, left, and Sean Grandillo star as Laurey and Curly in “Oklahoma!”

(Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman / MurphyMade)

Sasha Hutchings, a Black actor who stars as Laurey and helps lead a multicultural ensemble, breaks up the monolithic whiteness of a musical that sings concerning the land with out pondering too deeply about its sophisticated historical past. In her singing, in addition to in her appearing, Hutchings brings a plucky power that doesn’t exclude worry, confusion or terrified vulnerability.

At St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, the place I first noticed this revival, after which on Broadway, Ali Stroker performed Ado Annie, profitable the 2019 Tony for her featured efficiency — the primary actor who makes use of a wheelchair to take action. Now the function of this libidinously freewheeling comedian character is performed by Sis, a Black trans performer who infuses her numbers with thunderous power.

Torn between two doable husbands, Ali Hakim (Benj Mirman), the peddler who enjoys enjoying the sphere, and Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler), the simple-minded swain determined to marry her, Sis’ Ado Annie ricochets like a slippery pinball. When she singingly confesses, “I Cain’t Say No,” she’s not simply being cute. This Ado Annie means enterprise.

Jud, the villain of the musical, is a pariah who has to work doubly laborious to maintain a roof over his head. Christopher Bannow captures the character’s complete loneliness. Sympathy is elicited with out sentimentalizing a creep whose dependancy to pre-digital-age porn often is the most touching side of his character. He suffers from having nobody to like him. Sadly, the following steps he takes in his deranged path threaten rape and homicide.

Fish conducts the scene that takes place in Jud’s lair in engulfing darkness. The blackout ratchets up the menace, however who’s the dangerous man on this standoff between rivals for Laurey’s coronary heart? Jud is clearly unhinged, however Curly is cruelly planting suicide as a romantic resolution to Jud’s woes.

The lights exit once more in a later scene, through which any fellow feeling for Jud is extinguished. Nerves are extra frayed at this level, not solely as a result of Laurey appears to be in peril but in addition due to the terrifying gunshots that went off the final time the lights had been minimize.

Video projections are sparingly launched to offer us close-ups of characters in extremis. The manufacturing by no means needs us to get too snug with how the present is continuing. Certainly, Fish wrests us from any post-intermission rest with a reworked dream ballet sequence that begins in heavy-metal mode.

Not all of those daredevil directorial strikes are eloquent, and the Ahmanson’s massive proscenium stage objectifies the manufacturing in a means that distances the viewers and topics the reveals to a extra indifferent sort of scrutiny. I hated the dream ballet in New York and located it even much less expressive in Los Angeles. (No fault of lead dancer Jordan Wynn, who follows the aggressive choreography of John Heginbotham, which could be interpreted as a livid retort to Agnes de Mille’s groundbreaking achievement.)

Barbara Walsh upholds Aunt Eller’s standing because the soul of normality, even when regular is now being checked out extra critically, if not cynically. Her function within the modified ending, which accentuates the bloodshed that the characters shortly hope to place behind them, often is the most chillingly trustworthy characteristic of this revamped revival.

Some could favor “Oklahoma!” the old school means. However for these open to discovering the haunting underside of a sneakily complicated musical, this manufacturing is boldly, openly alive.

A ultimate phrase of warning to potential theatergoers: You might by no means hum “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” with the identical lightheartedness once more.


The place: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays by way of Fridays, 2 and eight p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 16. (Name for exceptions)
Tickets: $35-$150 (topic to vary) 
Data: (213) 972-4400 or 
Working time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, together with one intermission
COVID protocol: Masks are required always. (Verify web site for modifications.)