Director Daniel Fish’s controversial 2019 Broadway revival of the classic musical Oklahoma! has come to Chicago for a two-week run at the CIBC Theatre. I don’t know how Fish’s innovative rethinking of the work (first developed at Bard College’s Fisher Center in 2015, and then produced off-Broadway at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2018 prior to the Broadway move) will resonate with audiences who don’t already know the show; as a piece of theatrical storytelling, this is certainly not the Oklahoma! its creators, composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, had in mind. But for those familiar with Oklahoma!‘s original narrative, this imaginative reconception offers plenty of bold, smart, provocative, even disturbing new takes on the material. Every contrarian choice that Fish has made in terms of staging and casting is a response to, even a comment on, the traditions that have accrued to Oklahoma! since its landmark 1943 premiere.
Oklahoma! centers on two love stories about lovestruck cowboys courting feisty farm women in “Indian Territory” in 1906, on the eve of the region becoming America’s 46th state—Oklahoma. Bronco-buster Curly McLain is determined to woo and wed proud, self-reliant Laurey Williams, who owns a farm with her Aunt Eller. Curly’s rope-twirling buddy Will Parker has his sights set on Ado Annie Carnes, the flirtatious daughter of a shotgun-toting farmer who wants to get her married off and out of his hair. Curly’s rival for Laurey’s affection is Jud, the brooding hired hand on Laurey’s farm, and Will’s is Ali Hakim, a Persian peddler whose fleeting romance with Ado Annie is a spin on the age-old “traveling salesman/farmer’s daughter” comic trope.
Through 1/23: Tue and Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun and Wed 2 and 7:30 PM; 2 PM only Sun 1/23; CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, broadwayinchicago.com, $33.50-$156.50.
The original Oklahoma! famously began not with a flashy chorus-girl number—the typical way a Broadway show of the 1940s would have started—but with Curly, offstage, crooning the now-iconic “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” a folksy waltz modeled on the 1870s Western anthem “Home on the Range.” As Curly entered singing the song, with its pastoral praise of a “bright golden haze on the meadow” and corn “as high as an elephant’s eye,” Aunt Eller sat alone onstage, churning butter in the front yard of her homestead on the sprawling prairie. But in Fish’s staging, Curly, playing guitar with the sweet backing of an onstage country string band, performs the song for the entire 12-person ensemble, who are seated around the stage in what appears to be a community hall furnished with white picnic tables and, on the walls off to the sides, racks of rifles, just waiting to be plucked from their mountings by anyone inclined toward “Second Amendment remedies” to their problems.
From that familiar yet strangely surreal opening, the narrative unfolds with stark simplicity in Fish’s minimalist staging. This is Oklahoma! as Epic Theater, in the style of Erwin Piscator or Bertolt Brecht. The audience is constantly reminded that the people onstage are actors, not the characters whose dialogue they are speaking and songs they are singing. Most scenes are played under a glaring white light, but some moments unfold in near-total darkness, with the actors speaking into handheld microphones—and, sometimes, with their faces projected larger than life via live video. The line readings are precisely, sometimes archly constructed—“acting in quotation marks,” to use critic Martin Esslin’s famous description of Brechtian performance. The striking stage pictures and detached acting style reinforce the audience’s awareness that we are watching a theatrical performance. Thus Fish communicates a sense of community but also of the emotional isolation of each individual in that community, constantly distancing the viewers from the characters so we can view their behavior as sometimes uncomfortable lessons that challenge our notions of what it means to be Americans.
Key to this concept is the casting, which defies conventional notions of the various archetypes who populate the show. Sean Grandillo’s Curly is not the robust, swaggering he-man played by Gordon MacRae in the 1955 movie or Hugh Jackman in the wonderful 1999 TV version, but a sly, scrawny trickster with a nasal vocal style that whines as prettily as the steel guitar backing him up. Sasha Hutchings’s Laurey is fierce and combative, but behind her bravado seethes an angry anxiety about her limited options as a young woman in this bleak rural landscape. Hutchings’s rendition of one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best songs, “Many a New Day,” is a tough, defiant declaration of sexual self-determination, and her Grand Ole Opry duet with Grandillo on the “People Will Say We’re in Love” reprise has a lovely, poignant melancholy edge. Christopher Bannow’s withdrawn Jud is a shy, deeply wounded loner, as much a danger to himself as to Curly and Laurey. His delivery of Jud’s operatic aria “Lonely Room”—the dark, threatening mirror image of Curly’s sunny “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’”—is riveting. And the casting of Sis—a Black trans woman—as Ado Annie, the “girl who cain’t say no,” is simply inspired. Sis captures Ado Annie’s hilarious but improbable mixture of naivete and sexual drive more believably than any actor I’ve ever seen.
The original 1943 Oklahoma! launched what was branded a “Golden Age of Broadway” with its optimistic celebration of an America coming together to fight tyranny and moving forward toward a hopeful future—where “the farmer and the cowman and the merchant mus’ all behave theirselves and act like brothers,” as Curly sings. Fish’s Oklahoma!—though far more diverse in its multiracial and gender-inclusive casting than conventional stagings of the show—presents us with an America in imperfect disunion, uncertain about the future of the nation, skeptical about the sustainability of democracy itself. Daniel Fish’s 2019 Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in the wake of the polarizing 2016 and 2018 national elections. Now, on its 2022 U.S. tour, this Brechtian rethinking conveys an angst that feels frighteningly reflective of the present climate, where debates over common-sense health concerns become skirmishes in an ever-escalating cultural war.