Review: This “Oklahoma” Refashioned For Our Times Goes About As Far As It Can Go, But Why?

Sept. 20, 2022 | By Bruce R. Feldman


"Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma," Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, Sept. 13 – Oct. 16, 2022


In Brief: Four years after the new revival of Oklahoma opened in New York and three-quarters of a century after the original production debuted on Broadway, the latest incarnation of this landmark musical finally has made its way to the Ahmanson stage, affording Southern California playgoers the opportunity to decide for themselves to what degree this radical, reductive, dark rethinking of a classic works, if at all.


Sasha Hutchings as Laurie, Sean Granville as Curly in "Oklahoma."

If deconstruction is what Oklahoma’s production team aimed for, then by this standard they have hit their target.


Gone are the conventional musical comedy blandishments – things audiences might usually expect at Broadway prices – such as impressive sets, appealing customs, energetic performances from trained vocalists, refined ballets and dance numbers, a full orchestra, and a traditional ending. Also missing in action here: optimism, innocence, nostalgia, replaced by a doleful descent into anguish masquerading as relevance.


There’s no doubt that the compulsion for relevance at any cost is the other motivating force behind the artistic decisions that shape this self-serving production.


Sis as the girl who can't say no, an Ado Annie you've never seen before and never will again.

What that means for this Oklahoma is that, to begin with, there’s no quaint turn-of-the-century farmhouse surrounded by the cornfield mentioned in the opening number. Instead, director Daniel Fish has settled on a simple, bland unitary set on display for all to see on entering the theater, as there’s also no act curtain. Inexplicably, Laura Jellinek’s scenic design resembles a modern middle school cafeteria with rows of long tables and chairs and multi-colored shiny tinsel streamers hanging from the ceiling, as if the decorations from last weekend’s prom were yet to be removed.


As for the cornfield, well, it’s sort of there, rendered in very muted, almost washed out, tones lightly sketched on the backwall. That’s the only nod to the location the original authors intended.


The cast and nine musicians wander in, sit down at the tables, and mostly remain there for the duration, rising only when called to play a role before returning to their seats. This makes the enterprise look like a workshop production. It’s a curious choice, because this is, after all, Oklahoma, not A Chorus Line. At first you think that the actors are going to function as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action, but they don’t. So, why are they on stage all night?


There’s no doubt that the compulsion for relevance at any cost is the other motivating force behind the artistic decisions that shape this self-serving production.

These miscalculations might not matter so much if strong singing and dancing were the order of the day.


The acting is mostly understated, uninspired, or both. Songs are presented as indifferent pop vocals, somewhat disconnected from context, by performers with very little technique and limited range. Reframing standards is not a bad thing. Pop, rock, country western, and R & B singers – think Linda Rondstadt, Diana Ross, Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson, Billy Porter and many others – have always covered show tunes, but with stronger musicianship and greater interpretative power than the performers here.


Sasha Hutchings as Laurie is the exception. She’s got by far the best voice. She segues handily from feisty, to charming, to stubborn. She’s a joy to watch. Also outstanding, Sis as an Ado Annie you’ve never seen and likely never will again, a big lusty trans woman who is so delightfully over the top that she makes Jennifer Hudson’s histrionics in Dream Girls look like a snooze. Other actors aren’t as effective. Christopher Bannow’s Jud Fry is just morose, coming off not as the menacing villain he should be, but as a schlub. Laurie might be attracted to a bad guy, but to a schmo? Never!


Claremore, OK ca. 1906? Where's the farmhouse, cornfield, and surrey with the fringe on top?

Agnes de Mille’s astonishing, ground-breaking dream ballets of 1943 and the 1955 movie have been superseded by a sparkly tee-shirt-clad soloist (Jordan Wynn), and not a well-trained one, unless you consider what you see on television’s So You Think You Can Dance to be the holy grail of theatrical dancing. The choreographer, John Heginbotham, is the responsible party here. Agnes de Mille should sue.


The ending of this Oklahoma, as envisioned by Fish and company, is another non-problem in search of an unwanted solution. I won’t reveal what happens in case you plan to see the show. But after you do, contrast this with the surprise ending of the recent Lincoln Center Production of My Fair Lady (which also played here this season). It was the lavish, sparkling My Fair Lady we love with an entirely believable twist at the end that enhanced both our enjoyment and understanding of the show’s altered message. Bartlett Sher didn’t have to change the text, as Fish did, to update his message for our times. In this Oklahoma, the new resolution stretches credulity. And that’s hardly the only disappointment. The surrey with the fringe on top is gone, too.


One thing Fish retained from the original: the phony Oakie accents. There are more than enough hain’ts, turr-ibles, and fers to last a lifetime, I reckon.


Everything’s up to date in this "Oklahoma," but to what end?

It all comes down then to the glorious Rodgers and Hammerstein score. It’s still there, hidden under layers of pretense and tedium, for you to enjoy if you close your eyes and concentrate on Hammerstein’s sublime lyrics and Rodgers enduring tunes.


Everything’s up to date in this Oklahoma, but to what end? We already know that we don’t live in Mayberry anymore, that most folks harbored prejudice then as now, that the good old days were not so good after all, and that relevance isn’t synonymous with artistry.


The Oklahoma that’s at the 2,000-seat Ahmanson isn’t the same as the one presented at St. Anne’s Warehouse in New York, a black box space with a few hundred seats. I suspect that this highly acclaimed, reductive Oklahoma makes its point at least somewhat more effectively in an intimate setting. With this touring version, mounted for large houses and perhaps less sophisticated audiences, as our only frame of reference, we’ll never know.


"Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 213-628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org