** Somewhat Recommended ** If you’re an Oklahoma! purist, you’ll probably find the new touring production at the CIBC Theatre heavy going. If you’re open to a completely new interpretation of this perennial favorite, then this is the show for you! Although it’s advertised as Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! it’s just not. Director Daniel Fish had a new idea. Now I don’t care if he changed the set, the costumes and the time line, but he wasn’t finished. He also changed the songs! They do still sing the original lyrics but the music is played bluegrass style. The talented cast tried to win me over but no, I am a purist. 2 ½ Spotlights
You’ll see the set as soon as you walk into the theater. It kind of reminded me of the grounds around an Indiana Grange Hall. There’s a rustic mural on the back wall and multiple gun racks on the sides. Blond wood tables and folding chairs are lined up. There are buckets, baskets and coolers on the floor, stacks of corn on the tables.
Everyone, musicians and actors, stroll on stage and sit down. The show starts when a single guy sitting in the back started to sing. When he walked downstage, I realized that this was Curly (Sean Grandillo), but he was singing an almost unrecognizable version of Oh, What a Beautiful Morning. When Aunt Eller (Barbara Walsh) and then the rest of the cast joined in, I knew we were in for something really different.
Walsh seemed a little young for Aunt Eller, but she held her own flirting and dancing with Curly. Her voice was perfect for the part, too. By the way, I loved her blue denim skirt and boots.
In addition to a terrific voice, Grandillo can play a mean guitar, which he did frequently as he courted Laurey (Sasha Hutchings), a really beautiful girl. She’s in love with that pesky cowboy, but she just wouldn’t admit it, even after he asked her to ride to the box supper with him in The Surrey with the Fringe on Top. Hutchings has a great voice, and she could really beat out a rhythm.
Ado Annie (Sis) stole the show! Her version of I Can’t Say No was naughty, even a bit raunchy, but also very funny. In the middle of her dance, she lifted one of the men, rather than the reverse, cracking up the audience. She had a hard time picking between her two suitors.
Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler) a not-very-bright cowboy, went off to Kansas City to compete in a rodeo. When he won the roping contest, the prize was fifty dollars so he came back to claim Ado Annie. He also did a bit of bragging about seeing Kansas City. By the way, he’s a really good dancer too.
Although Ado Annie thought she might be in love with the peddler, Ali Hakim (Benj Mirman), he wasn’t about to get hitched – at least until her father came along with a shotgun. Although he got away from Ado Annie, Ali did get caught kissing Gertie (Hannah Solow) who had one of the freakiest laughs I’ve ever heard.
Nobody knows anything about Aunt Eller’s hired hand, Jud (Christopher Bannow). Eller said he was the best hired hand she’d ever had. Laurey said he scared her. Curly saw him as a rival. Jud is quiet until he’s pushed, but there’s no doubt he wants Laurey. Curly drops in to see him, taunting him with a rope and singing Pore Jud Is Daid. Jud’s character and his actions always was the darkest part of Oklahoma!
The second act begins with a ballet, a dream sequence between Curly and Laurey, originally choreographed by Agnes de Mille. Instead of a duet, this production features a single dancer, Gabrielle Hamilton, wearing a sparkly white shirt/shorts set with Dream Baby Dream written in black, who does a jazz/modern dance routine.
At the box social, everyone is dancing. When a fight threatens, Aunt Eller shoots her gun in the air, then orders the men to have fun! She also runs the auction for the meals the ladies fixed, and the bidding is lively. Curly and Jud each try outbid the other. To get more money, Curly sold his saddle, then his horse and finally his gun. Whatever he bid, Jud topped by two bits (25 cents).
In the Rodgers and Hammerstein version of Oklahoma!, Jud killed himself. Laurey and Curly lived happily ever after in the brand new state of Oklahoma! In this production, when Jud gives Curly a gun as a wedding gift, Curly uses it to shoot Jud in cold blood in front of Laurey and the whole town. I can only assume someone thought that in order to appeal to a certain audience, some gratuitous violence had to be added.
Things that bugged me:
- A couple of times the stage lights were turned off so the audience was watching two characters talking in the dark
- Sometimes during these blackouts, someone stuck a hand-held camera into those faces in the dark, then projected their faces in black & white close-up all over the set
- A couple of times, in the middle of a song, the actor would grab a hand-held microphone, which, of course, raised the volume considerably
- There were two things about the dream sequence that really bugged me. The music was ear-splittingly loud. For some inexplicable reason (because dance is meant to be seen), the lights went down so the camera could focus on the dancer’s face.
- I have to wonder if the director ever checked the sight lines from the audience. Since I was sitting in the side aisle, there was a lot of action I never saw because it was behind the lighting grids. I’m sure it was the same for those unlucky people on the other side.
Orchestra: Andy Collopy (Conductor/Accordion/Drums); Dominic Lamorte (Associate Conductor/Upright Bass); Rick Snell (Mandolin/Electric Guitar); Liz Faure (Pedal Steel/Acoustic Guitar/Electric Guitar); Justin Hiltner (Banjo); James Sanders (Violin); Jean Hatmaker (Cello).
Note: Guests must show proof of vaccination with photo ID before entering the theater. Guests are required to wear masks while inside the building.
Oklahoma runs through January 30th at Broadway in Chicago’s CIBC Theatre, 18 West Monroe Street, Chicago. Running time is 2 hours, 45 minutes, with an intermission. Performances are: Friday, January 14th at 7:30 pm; Saturday, January 15th at 2:00 & 8:00 pm; Sunday, January 16th at 2:00 & 7:30 pm; Tuesday, January 18th at 7:30 pm; Wednesday, January 19th at 2:00 & 7:30 pm; Thursday, January 20th at 7:30 pm; Friday, January 21st at 7:30 pm; Saturday, January 22nd at 2:00 & 8:00; Sunday, January 23rd at 2:00 pm. Tickets range from $27 to $98. FYI www.BroadwayInChicago.com.