Little did Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein realize that their joint project, OKLAHOMA, would usher in the Golden Age of American musical theater. Based on Lynn Riggs’ 1931 book, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” OKLAHOMA opened on Broadway in 1943 and became a smash hit which ran for over 2,000 performances. In 1944, Rodgers and Hammerstein won a special Pulitzer Prize for their first musical collaboration. In 1955, OKLAHOMA was made into a blockbuster film starring Gordon McRae, Shirley Jones (in her film debut), and a host of A-list Hollywood actors. OKLAHOMA has been revived multiple time over the years, both nationally and internationally. However, OKLAHOMA really came back into the public eye in 2019, when a renewed revival came to the Broadway stage and won Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Musical, and Best Featured actress in a Musical (Ali Stroker as Ado Annie). In 2022, the latest Broadway revival of OKLAHOMA opens at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.
Set in 1906 in a small town in the Indian Territories, OKLAHOMA paints a vivid picture of life in the “Wild West,” where cattle ranchers vie with farmers for the expansive land which will soon achieve statehood. Farm girl Laurey Williams finds herself torn between two suiters, cowboy Curly McLain and farmhand Jud Fry. The strong contrast between Curly, an optimistic and active cowhand, and Jud Fry, a lonely and sinister man with a macabre history, accentuates Laurey’s dilemma. At the same time, Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler) courts Ado Annie (Sis), while reluctant peddler Ali Hakim (Ben Mirman) tries to figure a way out of “forever after” with the sexy little lady. Rodgers and Hammerstein populated their musical with lots of interesting folks, including Aunt Eller (Barbara Walsh), a tough woman who misses very little going on around her, and the Giggly Gertie Cummings (Hannah Solow).
This new and revised Oklahoma is faithful to the original in terms of music, lyrics, Agnes De Mille’s original choreography, and actors’ lines. There is even a Dream Sequence for company lead dancer Jordan Wynn punctuated by an incandescent robe, lots of stage fog, and athletic modern moves. From the very first scene, things begin to diverge. The set never really changes: a stage with multiple chairs and tables at which, most of the time, the entire cast sits – with eight orchestra members led by music conductor/accordion/drums Andy Collopy holding up the rear. At two different points in the show, all lights are extinguished, and the audience sees nothing but hears the lines delivered by the actors in the dark. The famed OKLAHOMA songs are exuberantly delivered by the cast – with special enthusiasm for the keynote melody of the production. At the same time, subtle differences abound, including key, tempo, and delivery style, sometimes rendering the tunes nearly unrecognizable. It was also fascinating to note how nonverbal cues and props were used to change the essence of the ending of the tale. OKLAHOMA advertises itself and new and modern. It is certainly different from the original.
Daniel Fish does an excellent job of helming the production, keeping to the basics while using multiple levels of subtlety to alter the production. The talented cast sing and dance their hearts out. Costumes are in keeping with the story line (but considerably more sensual than in the original). This OKLAHOMA revival will likely prove intriguing for fans of Rodgers and Hammerstein, although purists may have difficulty accepting the many variations which the show presents. It appeared that the current production has been geared to younger audiences. As such, the producers are congratulated for appealing to more youthful audiences and so broadening the scope of potential viewers. It should entertain and delight this focused group. Older viewers may find themselves longing for the original.
OKLAHOMA runs through October 16, 2022, with performances at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays. There will be an additional performances at 2 p.m. on Thursday (10/13) and no 6:30 p.m. performance on Sunday (10/16). The Ahmanson Theatre is located at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Tickets range from $35 to $150. For information and reservations, call 213-972-4400 or go online.