The new touring production of “Oklahoma!” is not your grandparents’ version of the lush, ultra-classic 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about the great future of America. Or your parents’ version. Or perhaps, your version. But it’s extraordinary in every sense of the word.
It’s wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful. It’s radical while remaining true to the text of the original and forcing us to see — or hear — it anew. It’s dark — sometimes literally as blackouts and floods of dark colors are not uncommon. It’s also very funny, injecting the romantic comedy components with unending sexual tension expressing itself in insults.
It’s sultry and saucy and silly and serious and sometimes, especially at the end, so standoffish that it feels like it’s slapping you.
It’s… everything, except ordinary.
The musical, which takes place in 1906 Oklahoma, as the territory is on the verge of statehood and its (supposedly) glorious American future of limitless possibility, is set by director Daniel Fish and scenic designer Laura Jellinek in a purely theatrical, timeless but contemporary-ish space, something like a bright beer hall or public picnic. The cast members hang around the picnic tables even when they’re not in the scenes, drinking Bud Light, occasionally shucking corn, often stomping to the beat of the songs to energize the festivities. It’s a party. But there are gun racks on the wall. With a lot of guns. A lot.
Many of the scenes are played with an emotional distance, with the actors — all superb — seeming to just say the lines without much inflection, and yet still capturing their characters. Interestingly, it’s both more artificial and more authentic simultaneously.
The full personalities of the characters and performers emerge more forcefully when they sing. The songs — and oh! does this show have the songs! — sound completely different than prior takes but come across brilliantly. A traditional-radical production would turn the tunes into contemporary country, but here the pedal string guitar and the rest of the seven-member onstage band invest “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” and “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and the rest of one of best scores in history with a compellingly wobbly, eerie twang.
On Broadway, where this production won the Tony Award for best revival, the show was performed in-the-round. Re-staged for proscenium houses, the backdrop depicts a barn and a farmhouse amidst a sprawl of empty land awaiting planting — in a traditional version, that would surely be painted with corn stalks as high as an elephant’s eye. The proportions of the buildings are purposely flattened in a way that evokes American Gothic.
The lighting and staging of the tour place the focus even more on Laurey as the pure center of this tale. Played and sung skillfully by Sasha Hutchings, who understudied the role on Broadway, Laurey seems to be pondering often, seeming to wonder if something might be very, very wrong. She’s drawn to her rightful love interest Curly (Sean Grandillo), here a classic singing cowboy in the Roy Rogers tradition but with cute hair out of “High School Musical.” But she’s also both drawn to and repulsed by hired hand Jud Fry, who in this version is both the villain and the bullied, deeply damaged victim. As Jud, Christopher Bannow brings even more of a school shooter vibe than the character had on Broadway, urgently emphasizing Jud’s seething resentment at others’ sense of superiority.
I wondered how they’d recast the actress Ali Stroker, who won the Tony for playing the naïve-but-naughty farmgirl Ado Annie in her wheelchair. Here, Ado Annie is played by Sis, a Black transgender woman wearing a curly blonde wig, who has the audience fully on her side from the minute she physically tosses around her much smaller love interest Will Parker (an endearing Hennessy Winkler).
If you’re not sure about all this — and it has, fairly, been satirized as “Woke-lahoma” — you should at least go for the first act. You’d still feel like you had a full evening and can leave, which people do, mostly feeling optimistic about the future.
The second act explodes all the Americana myths underneath the story even further, while clearly revealing that this undercurrent was there all along. That’s what’s shocking.
It starts by substituting the “Dream Ballet” with a solo modern dance, performed by Gabrielle Hamilton, from the original Broadway cast. It’s beautiful and expressive, alternating between flowing movement and gyrating pain that instantly brings to mind someone being shot.
The ending of this “Oklahoma!” manages to be both shattering and enlightening, turning what used to be a happy ending into a view of how our criminal justice system favors the powerful.
The last number, a reprise of the title song, feels as if everyone is singing the song of optimism so hard because they’re trying to purge their underlying trauma.
In this version, it’s clear that despite the lyric saying so, Oklahoma is not OK.