Oklahoma: An old classic in a provocative new light

From the moment the first strains of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” echo across the sparsely decorated stage and brightly lit audience, I am acutely aware that this will not be like any version of Oklahoma I have seen before. The stage is lined with tables covered with crock pots and cans of bud light. The entirety of the small ensemble cast sits in wooden folding chairs, listening to Curly’s (Sean Grandillo) ballad that is normally staged as a private song for Aunt Eller (Barbara Walsh) and Laurey (Sasha Hutchings). Grandillo sings out Curly’s notes, not with the gusto of a classically trained broadway performer but with a cowboy twang. And really, if Curly, a cowboy, was to serenade a single woman he had an interest in in 1906 Oklahoma, wouldn’t it have been with a twang?

I do not like surprises, so when I learned I would be seeing the national touring production of the 2019 revival of Oklahoma, directed by Daniel Fish, I did a little research. I knew this production had a modern take on a classic show. Oklahoma was first produced in 1943. In this new version, the actors are costumed in more modern western styles and the cast is diverse. So I thought I would be seeing America’s beloved Oklahoma,  with a modern twist. However, as I read more, I realized how wrong I had been. I’m assuming the audience members who left in the middle of Act 1 and those that did not return after intermission were not prepared for what they were seeing. But I was prepared, and I loved it!

For much of the history of the United States, Americans have been told a story in one way. Some people are included, many people are not. Americans have passively accepted that reality until recently. As a dual professional- working in both the fields of American history and Theater- I have embraced the recent questioning of that history and how we tell our stories. Traditionally, Oklahoma tells the white washed story of Laurey Williams who lives on a farm in the Oklahoma territory in 1906 with her Aunt Eller. Pretty Laurey is joyfully courted by cowboy Curly McLain while also pursued by the darker farmhand Jud Fry. They are surrounded by a community of farmers and cowhands, including a gaggle of women to protect and support Laurey in her decision of which beau to choose. We laugh at Ado Annie, the flirt, who’s more casual behavior in the original staging led to laughs, but even she lacks agency as a woman in this world (Oklahoma 1906 or Oklahoma 1943)

Daniel Fish, who received a degree in Performance Studies from Northwestern University took Rodgers and Hammerstein’s words- exactly-  and changed the world of Oklahoma to one that both reflects more accurately the time of the setting- 1906- and the time we are in now- 2022. 

1906:

Watching the original staging, especially the 1955 film version, one wonders “Where did all of these people on the frontier come from?”  Instead of a large cast with a big chorus in Fish’s staging, we see a small ensemble of 11 plus one featured dancer. This difference is especially true of the women. In this cast there are 4. The American frontier would be sparsely populated- especially devoid of women in a space of farmers and cowboys. This helps the audience perceive the risk these women live with every day of their lives in a society where they are vastly outnumbered by men. This fact is embraced by Fish’s staging. We are no longer cheering for Laurey and Curly. Instead, Grandillo’s Curly makes us nervous, just as Jud always has. But is Curly  the better of the two options for the safety of Laurey in this dangerous society? As the four women break the corn in Many a New Day, instead of basking in the joy of love and marriage women are supposed to dream about, we realize the constraints and frustrations women lived in where their only choice was which undesirable man to marry to keep them safe from predators.

This show is dark. Not just this 2019 version- THIS SHOW! As soon as I was old enough to understand the song Poor Jud is Dead, I couldn’t believe we let our children just watch this classic musical without a word about how we cheer on the hero as he prods another man to commit suicide. Fish highlights this and the other dark undertones of the show. When we see traditional stagings we are relieved when Curly is acquitted of Jud’s death on Curly and Laurey’s wedding day. Fish brings out this dark and we realize the frontier was not a place where cowboys danced and sang away their troubles. Hutchings’ blood-soaked anguish haunts the audience as the show ends.

2022

As a teacher of theater, I grapple with how we take these classic shows that need to be part of our repertoire as we bring up new generations of theater goers. Oklahoma was the first show to combine singing, dancing and acting in one cohesive story, creating the modern musical. But it is a story that has not reflected the changing world we live in now making it seem irrelevant to the young theater students I work with today. But Fish puts all people onstage. Would they have been together in this community in 1906? No. Can I accept them together in 2022’s version of 1906? Yes. And it is beautiful and powerful.

I appreciated this new version because it makes us question desire. And who can be desirable. While the touring company’s Ado Annie does not use a wheelchair as Tony Award winner Ali Stroker did on Broadway, Sis’s portrayal of Ado Annie in this touring company is not like any you have seen before. But she still creates a lovable and powerful character, in charge of her own sexuality- not just a “flirt” to be laughed at.

Finally, the modern show raises questions about outcasts. When we create community, who are we still leaving out? And what happens when we ignore their cries for help. I have never felt as much empathy or fear of Jud Fry as I did watching Christopher Bannow’s interpretation. His grunge look, meek voice that can erupt into rage and distant eyes reminded me of recent headlines of white men who, when feeling excluded, use violence to finally be heard as Jud does in the end.

I loved this re-imagining of Oklahoma. Were some choices hard for me to understand- yes. But I enjoyed seeing this classic in a new light that welcomed so many more perspectives and people. It is ok to hear stories in new ways. In this way we can include all of the people who need to fit into the fabric of our story. We can rethink what our stories teach us. Most importantly, we can question what we know and use that discomfort to grow.

Oklahoma  is playing at the CIBC Theatre through January 23.

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