Broadway in Chicago's bold, discerning 'Oklahoma!' reflects troubled times

  • Sean Grandillo, right, plays Curly opposite Sasha Hutchings' Laurey in the Broadway tour of the Tony Award-winning revival of "Oklahoma!"

    Sean Grandillo, right, plays Curly opposite Sasha Hutchings' Laurey in the Broadway tour of the Tony Award-winning revival of "Oklahoma!" Courtesy of Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

  • Director Daniel Fish's provocatively deconstructed revival of "Oklahoma!" runs through Jan. 23 at Chicago's CIBC Theatre.

    Director Daniel Fish's provocatively deconstructed revival of "Oklahoma!" runs through Jan. 23 at Chicago's CIBC Theatre. Courtesy of Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

 
 
Updated 1/13/2022 11:58 AM

"Oklahoma!" -- ★ ★ ★

For theatergoers who welcome alternative interpretations of classic tuners, who don't mind being confronted by troubling truths that reflect these tense times, director Daniel Fish's intrepidly re-imagined revival of "Oklahoma!" is for you.

 

Provocatively staged, with bluegrass- and country-inspired arrangements, an unfussy set and contemporary costumes, Fish's discerning deconstruction -- although rightly reconstructed better describes this unvarnished examination of America -- makes for memorable theater. Which is to say Fish's version of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's seminal 1943 musical -- running through Sunday, Jan. 23, at Chicago's CIBC Theatre -- is not what most people expect. Yearning, passion, isolation, the treatment of outsiders, the commodification of women and the pressure to conform all figure as prominently as the love triangle between Curly, Laurey and Jud, making this "Oklahoma!" the right show for right now.

The folks sitting behind me found the show "disturbing" and "interesting," an adjective people sometimes substitute when they're reluctant to express praise outright.

In the 2019 revival of "Oklahoma!" playing at the CIBC Theatre, Curly (Sean Grandillo), second from right, and Laurey (Sasha Hutchings), right, get their happily ever after, but at what price?
In the 2019 revival of "Oklahoma!" playing at the CIBC Theatre, Curly (Sean Grandillo), second from right, and Laurey (Sasha Hutchings), right, get their happily ever after, but at what price? - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

It is disquieting. But these are disquieting days, which this Tony Award-winning production reflects. And it does so while keeping Hammerstein's book and Rodgers' score mostly intact. Jud dies from a gunshot wound, not from falling on his knife, and some of the dialogue has been cut. But what remains -- the darkness, the ambivalence, the unease -- is Hammerstein verbatim. And it's riveting.

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The action unfolds in what appears to be a community center, beneath metallic streamers and between walls containing racks of shotguns.

Curly (Sean Grandillo), right, paints a picture about the passing of Jud Fry (Christopher Bannow) in director Daniel Fish's provocative revival of "Oklahoma!"
Curly (Sean Grandillo), right, paints a picture about the passing of Jud Fry (Christopher Bannow) in director Daniel Fish's provocative revival of "Oklahoma!" - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Sean Grandillo is the guitar-playing Curly in love with Laurey, a conflicted young woman exploring her sexuality. She's played by Sasha Hutchings whose every acting choice resonates and whose performance stayed with me long after the curtain came down. Vying for Laurey's affection is the lonely outsider Jud Fry, played with aching vulnerability by Christopher Bannow, whose expressive performance commands attention. He and Grandillo's "Pore Jud is Daid" is perhaps the most unsettling and illuminating scene in the show. Performed in total darkness, it's an ingenious, disturbing expression of manipulation and toxic masculinity.

Ado Annie (Sis), right, welcomes home Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler) in the touring production of the modern-day set, Tony Award-winning revival of "Oklahoma!"
Ado Annie (Sis), right, welcomes home Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler) in the touring production of the modern-day set, Tony Award-winning revival of "Oklahoma!" - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Their comic counterparts are played by Hennessy Winkler as the sweetly dim Will; Benj Mirman as the charmer Ali Hakim; and Sis, a performer with a unique voice and flair for landing punchlines, as the amorous Ado Annie.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

At times, the acting outweighs the singing. But the onstage septet conducted by Andy Collopy is first-rate. Twangy when the tune demands, Liz Faure's pedal steel guitar and Justin Hiltner's banjo provide delicious accompaniment to "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'." Rick Snell's scorching electric guitar is the ideal accompaniment for choreographer John Heginbotham's feverish "Dream Ballet" -- which alludes to Agnes de Mille's original choreography and showcases the dynamic Gabrielle Hamilton, whose T-shirt reads: Dream Baby Dream.

Gabrielle Hamilton, center, dances a highly charged, dramatically reinterpreted version of the famous "Dream Ballet" in the touring production of "Oklahoma!" running through Jan. 23 at the CIBC Theatre.
Gabrielle Hamilton, center, dances a highly charged, dramatically reinterpreted version of the famous "Dream Ballet" in the touring production of "Oklahoma!" running through Jan. 23 at the CIBC Theatre. - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Kudos to Daniel Kluger for inspired arrangements and to music supervisor Nathan Koci for the lovely harmonies on "Many a New Day," which are accompanied by the female quartet defiantly snapping ears of corn.

Ultimately, the power of this version of "Oklahoma!" rests with Fish's vision evident in moments both grand and small: Laurey stands stoic at center stage while Curly and Jud bid for her affections; the smile that ghosts across Jud's face during "Surrey With the Fringe on Top"; the romantic confession between Laurey and Curly that occurs upstage right with Curly's back to the audience, which seems to lessen its significance. Finally, there's the dispassionate response of the townspeople to Jud's death and their willingness to acquit Curly in an extrajudicial proceeding. Circumventing the law to benefit one of their own is an inauspicious transition to statehood. These Oklahomans know it. Their tormented, guilt-ridden performance of the finale confirms it: the titular anthem as mea culpa. That's some coda.

• • •

Location: CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Tuesday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday through Jan. 23. No 7:30 p.m. show Jan. 23

Tickets: $23.50-$156.50

Running time: About 2 hours, 45 minutes with intermission

Parking: Paid parking lots nearby

Rating: For teens and older

COVID-19 precautions: Proof of vaccination or negative COVID test and masking required

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