Review: Touring 'Oklahoma!' Offers Darker Take on Classic

by Michelle Sandoval

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday September 19, 2022

A scene from the national company of "Oklahoma!"
A scene from the national company of "Oklahoma!"  (Source:Tour website)

Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" has always been one of my favorites. Whether it's the 1955 film, or the countless times I've seen it on and off Broadway, I have always absolutely loved it. Now director Daniel Fish brings us a fresh take on the original work, shucking the classic of its down home roots. What we have is a completely reimagined "Oklahoma!," a 21st century dark take with a diverse cast and innovative creative decisions, all without changing the original text. Does this daring take work? Sure. But it may be too much of a far cry from the original for everyone's taste.

Debuting in 1943, "Oklahoma!" tells the simple tale of a young girl being courted by two potential beaus. All the while as the Oklahoma territory is on the verge of statehood; and with it, innovation, growth, and change are just within these characters' reach.

The leads of this national tour are played by Sasha Hutchings as Laurey Williams and Sean Grandillo as Curly McLain. The wrench in this love triangle is Christopher Bannow as the hired hand, Jud Fry. Hutchings and Grandillio embody the classic characters with spirit, each using a combination of young infatuation and sexual lust to make you root for their partnership. Their playful banter and carnal body language points at an obvious match. Yet they have a lot of growing up to do before these two can get to their happy ending, something that may not be in the cards for them after all.

You can feel their frustration when Hutchings beats her boot down during her splendidly choreographed takes, and whenever Grandillo picks up his guitar for a ballad that's as much yokel as it is folk-rock. Their duet of "People Will Say We're In Love," provides harmonization of their voices, each with a unique flare that creates a perfect combination.

Bannow is perhaps too good at his role, playing the lonely farmhand with a creepish demeanor that will leave you cringing. An extreme video close up of Bannow's blank eyes and tear stained face illuminated on a screen at the rear of the stage during "Pore Jud is Daid" drive this his hopelessness home, and clinches the man's fate.

You can't talk about this show without highlighting the strong performance actor Sis delivers with her version of Ado Annie. Wow, what a showstopper. Any conception you have of this meek and charming character will be shattered, instead paving the way for an Annie that is loud, proud and engaging. Sis delivers a performance that will have you in hysterics, she is a true tour de force. Much like her signature song, "I Cain't Say No" to this upcoming star.

Intermission will welcome you back with a fierce interpretive dance number performed by Jordan Wynn. The number brings to life Laurey's angst and replaces the famous Agnes DeMille ballet that previously ended the first half. But strobe lights, loud guitar riffs and boots falling from the sky make it more of a nightmare.

The set leaves a lot to be imagined, with a stage almost bare. A few shiny streamers are strewn above, while the cast has only unfinished wooden tables with ears of corn and Bud Light cans to use as props. All of this hides a small onstage orchestra of bright players. The minimalist artistic choice left me longing for wheat fields and decorative box social barns.

Interpretive dance, creative video and camera use, bizarre lighting, a diverse cast and gutsy music choices all make this new "Oklahoma!" a riveting experience. It won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical a couple of years back, which says a lot during a time when everyone is remaking and reimagining everything. The classic tale is ripped from its American Heartland roots and thrust into the modern day where everything is in chaos. Gun violence, race, gender issues and lawlessness are all highlighted here, culminating in an ending that is as shocking as it is frustrating. Fish's "Oklahoma!" is impactful and poignant in a way that is almost haunting, leaving the show's opening promise of "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin" overcast with a storm cloud of death, despair, shock, and more importantly, truth. 

"Oklahoma!" continues through Oct. 16 at the Ahmanson Theater, 153 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA. For more information, visit https://www.centertheatregroup.org.