Oklahoma! Updated 2.0 Leaves Many Bewildered by Why This Classic Was Ever Changed.

Let me start by saying we love the classic musicals, and Oklahoma is one of those musicals written by the duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein that’s at the top of the list. Featuring great songs of “Oh What a Beautiful Morinin’, I Cain’t Say No, Kansas City, People Will Say We’re in Love and, of course, Oklahoma; you can see why it was a box office hit in 1943. 

Oklahoma, arguably one of the five best western musicals, was a funny and romance adaptation with a somewhat dark and disturbing production that shocked and excited its audiences. A musical based on Green Grow the Lilacs, written by Lynn Riggs‘ 1931 play, Oklahoma, tells the story of a farm girl named Laurey Williams courtship with two suitors, cowboy Curly McLain and disturbed farmhand Jud Fry. Jud works as Laurey’s helper, who tends the farm while she and her Aunt Eller handle other chores. Unfortunately, Jud Fry has become obsessed with Laurey, and when Curly waits too long to ask Laurey out to the dance, she unwillingly accepts to go with Jud to upset Curly.  

Oklahoma also introduces us to Will Parker and his undying love for a flirtatious girl named Ado Annie. Ado, who can’t help but desire any man who speaks purty words to her, starts a courtship with Ali Hakim, a Persian peddler performed dazzlingly by Hunter Hoffman in this play’s production. 

Last night, Broadway in Chicago’s CIBC Theatre showcased a more modern version of Oklahoma. Daniel Fish directs this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, and those who are musical purists will be baffled by this new Oklahoma! 2.0 version. The production followed the main storyline, and Fish’s reimagined Oklahoma! won the 2019 Tony Award for best revival of a musical. Still, if you previously seen Oklahoma musicals, and there have been many, the mature and seasonal audience, left wondering what happened to this classic Rodgers and Hammerstein play. 

The play starts with an uninspiring background where the cast walks on stage. And most of the singing and actors were not to the standard you typically received from a Broadway in Chicago performance. However, the main cast of Sean Grandillo, Sasha Hutchings, Hennessy Winkler, Barbara Walsh, Christopher Bannow and Sis, (another great performance on stage) was entertaining. Still, it never seemed to have that magical theatrical spark to intrigue the audience, who seemed confused with its direction, making us feel that those who have never seen this classic play would be less confused. There were also some strange dark scenes where Curly talks about Jud killing himself, which is in the original; however, the director chose to have a video image of the two men to add a little twist of drama and suspense. We have to admit, it did add a level of suspense, but we are not sure it captivated the audience as intended. Then came the second half intro, which was even more perplexing. 

Director Daniel Fish opens the second half by depicting Laurey’s dilemma regarding her feelings for Curly and her disdain for Jud with a bizarre and somewhat overly sexual dance performance that portrays her struggles. A dance that seemed to take up ten to fifteen minutes had most at a loss for words. The original Rodgers and Hammerstein play have a fifteen-minute “dream ballet” that reflects Laurey’s struggle with her feelings about the courtship of the two men; however, last night’s adaptation took it to another level. It may have trilled the dance majors in the crowd, but most appeared mum after the dream interpretation. 

There are several different versions of the ending for the production of Oklahoma. The musical movie version has Jud lighting a fire to some hay after losing Laurey to Curly. Then, while fighting, Jud falls in his knife and dies. In contrast, the original 1943 broadway production only has Jud and Curly fighting and Jud falling to his death after plunging on his knife. Finally, Fish’s version has Curly and Jud in a gun battle where blood spews on the married couple. The spewed blood was indeed for suspense and special effects, but all of the gun’s blood went in the wrong direction. We guess we watch too many crime shows.  

We much admit several people provided Oklahoma! 2.0 with a standing ovation, but most left with questions and an uneasy state of mind.   

Broadway In Chicago’s CIBC Theatre Oklahoma is moderately enjoyable with its cast of characters but lacks the Broadway feel that most theatergoers desire when leaving their homes to enjoy an evening of theater. 

Let’s Play Somewhat recommends Oklahoma but advises the classic theater lovers to temper their enthusiasm and have an open mind to this updated version. 

Broadway In Chicago

CIBC Theatre

OKLAHOMA! 2.0

Music By Richard Rodgers

Book and Lyrics By Oscar Hammerstein II

Based On the Play “Green Grow The Lilacs” By Lynn Riggs

Directed By Daniel Fish

January 11 – 23, 2022 

Filed under: ChicagoNow

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