To get straight to the point: The touring production of “Oklahoma!” that arrived Wednesday evening on the stage of Broadway in Chicago’s CIBC Theatre is “a travesty of a mockery of a sham.” And, for the profoundly painful 2 hours and 45 minutes it took for this desecration of a glorious American musical theater classic to play itself out, all I could think about was that its genius creators Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Jr. were not only rolling over in their graves, but were pounding their fists on their headstones as they wondered how those who now hold the rights to their brilliant initial collaboration, and its many glorious and groundbreaking elements, allowed this to happen. (In 2009, the rights were sold to a Netherlands-based pension fund. Disastrous.)
Billed as New York director Daniel Fish’s “modernization” (and created in advance of the 1943 musical’s 75th anniversary), this production might be considered a grotesque parody of the original were it to be done as, say, a scene on “Saturday Night Live.” But in its current form, it is just a warped and destructive version of its source. It’s both a sad introduction for young audiences who have never seen it in its true form and a spirit-crushing experience for all those who have seen it many times throughout the years. And this is not simply about a matter of nostalgia; it is about a matter of distortion.
“Oklahoma!” opened on Broadway at the very moment World War II was raging. And while it certainly did not candy-coat the American dream (circa 1906) as it dealt with the life of homesteaders, violence, injustice, sexuality and the nature of profound loneliness, it also extolled the essential spirit of the country. Watching this twisted version of the show erases all of that in the most heavy-handed ways.
The sense that something is “off” is palpable from the moment you set eyes on Laura Jellinek’s set, with its distant, sketchy backdrop of farm country, its clunky stage full of bare wood tables and chairs with metallic “fringe” suspended overhead, and its walls hung with row upon row of rifles that suggests you’re at a shooting range. The seven-piece orchestra is seated against the back wall. And while the idea is to suggest these are local musicians in the story, the lush sound of a full orchestra that can do justice to Rodgers’ music is sadly missing. In addition, the “updated” orchestral and vocal arrangements also undermine Rodgers. And the overall sound of the show is spotty, too, with lyrics and dialogue at times very muddied.
As for the storytelling (which is totally out of synch with the show’s essential historical setting), the central theme is the wariness of the strong-minded farm girl Laurey Williams (Sasha Hutchings) to commit to marrying cowboy Curly McLain (Sean Grandillo) and her troubling pursuit by Jud Fry (Christopher Bannow), the profoundly lonely and isolated farmhand who silently adores her.
For comic relief (which is wildly and unnecessarily overdone here) there is Ado Annie (Sis), the sex-driven, easily available girl pursued by cowboy Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler) and by Ali Hakim (expertly played by understudy Hunter Hoffman), the slick, ever on-the-move Persian peddler comically in pursuit of sex but on the run from commitment.
While almost every aspect of characterization has been directed in a heavy-handed way, several actors do manage to hold their own. Hutchings, a great beauty who moves with flair, is compelling in her suggestion of the mixed feelings she has for the two very different men – Curly and Jud – who are pursuing her. And Bannow – cast against tradition here as a slight, sensitive fellow in a portrayal that brings to mind one of the many recent mentally ill young men who resort to gun violence – is haunting.
And then there is the matter of the show’s choreography, originally the wonderfully dramatic and innovative work of Agnes de Mille. Something is clearly lacking early on with the far less-than-sensational “Kansas City” dance routine that makes the Will Parker character a real player. And de Mille’s long, impassioned dream ballet sequence that opens the second act designed to capture Laurey’s inner torment is reduced to a tedious orgasmic riff totally disconnected from the character. It has been devised by John Heginbotham and is performed by Gabrielle Hamilton dressed in a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Dream Baby Dream.”
Enough said. But if you already happen to have tickets to the show, and you’re in the mood, on the way out of the theater you might just find yourself with the impulse to sing: “Oh what a horrible evening. Oh what a godawful show.”
“Oklahoma” runs through Jan. 23 at the CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St. Visit broadwayinchicago.com.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic