Rogers and Hammerstein must be rolling in their graves

Do not mistake yourself. I encourage creativity and thinking about ways to present a classic in an unconventional way. What comes to mind is the Shakespeare in the Park version of “The Taming of the Shrew” set in the Wild West with Morgan Freeman and Tracy Ullman. Ethan Hawke did a film version of “Hamlet” set in corporate America, Anne Bogart did a production of “South Pacific” at NYU, which was set in a military hospital, and “Measure for Measure,” in Japan feudal. The reinvented version of OKLAHOMA! directed by Daniel Fish, received a total of eight Tony nominations, winning Best Revival of a Musical. This award-winning version was clearly not on stage on the opening night of the Ahmanson Theater. What was on stage was an amateur production one would expect in college.

LR: Sasha Hutchings as Laurey Williams and Sean Grandillo as Curly McClain on Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “OKLAHOMA” Nationwide Tour! onstage at the Ahmanson Theater until October 16, 2022. Photos: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Before I jump into my review, for those of you unfamiliar with Rogers & Hammerstein’s 1943 OKLAHOMA story!, it’s considered a timeless American musical piece and represents the Golden Age Hollywood musicals, paving the way for modern musicals. I have no objection to updating this iconic masterpiece to reflect our changing society with different ethnicities, sexual preferences, religions, etc. But, if you want to alter this piece, you better have an exceptional cast. to remove it. This is the first glaring mistake in this production, as most of the actors never rose above the line-readings and never played an actual role – that is, the actors connect to each other rather than sitting in their chairs waiting for a cue, reciting lines and yes, sitting back down. The scenario is simple. It’s the story of farmer’s wife Laurey Williams (Sasha Hutchings) and her courtship by two rival suitors, cowboy Curly McLain (Sean Grandillo) and sinister farmer Jud Fry played by Christopher Bannow. It is told against the backdrop of competing lovers, hostilities between farmers and cowherds, and the impending state of Oklahoma.

LR: Ugo Chukwu, Hannah Solow, Sis and Barbara Walsh in one of the OKLAHOMA production numbers. Photos: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

When I first walked into the theater what greeted me were garish streamers hanging from the ceiling and a pile of tables strewn across the stage. Without insulting any organization, it felt like a community hall, but not in a positive way. On the far wall was a suggestion of the barren prairie with two small houses in the background – so far back it was hard to even make out what they were. It was Laura Jellinek’s unimaginative set design. I already had a sense of unease, but given the rave reviews for the New York production, I still had hope. As for the dance numbers, while there was a hint of Agnes Di Mille’s signature choreography in “The Farmer and the Cowman,” most of John Heginbotham’s choreography was far from anything the one might call the caliber of Broadway. The execution was irregular, with some of the dancers losing their balance after a spin. The dreamlike ballet sequence at the head of Act II, danced by Jordan Wynn, was tedious and unnecessary, slowing down the start of the act.

LR: Christopher Bannow as the cynical Jud Fry with Sean Grandillo as Curly McClain in the nationwide tour of “OKLAHOMA!” from Rodgers & Hammerstein! on stage at the Ahmanson until October 16, 2022. Photos: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

At the top of Act 1, Curly sings the opening number – “Oh What a Beautiful Morning”. It was painfully dragging and only picked up when the rest of the ensemble joined in. His emotional range went from A to A and his stage presence did not leap over the “limelight”, as his acting was more cinematic than theatrical. Sasha Hutchings as Laurey delivered an uneven performance, with some of her understated singing and uncoordinated dancing like nearly every dance sequence. The role of Ado Annie was played by Sis, a trans woman who, if it had worked, would have been quite groundbreaking. However, regardless of your sexual preference, the same acting standards still apply, starting with believable characterization, no gratuitous aggression, and no indulging the audience for laughs. Being loud and pompous does not make a character. His rendition of “I Can’t Say No” was pushed and sometimes understated. The character of Sis is looking for a husband and seems to have two suitors: the peddler Ali Hakim, played well by Benj Mirman, is a cad who likes to play in the field and marriage is definitely not on his mind. The other potential husband is Will Parker, played by Hennessy Winkler. He is a simple man but desperately in love with Annie Ado. Barbara Walsh as Aunt Eller gives a low-key performance, which rarely goes beyond line readings. As for the storyline, she owns the farm that Laurey helps her run. The actor who delivers the only believable characterization and strongest organic performance is Christopher Bannow as creepy villain Jud Fry, a farmhand who works for Aunt Eller and is in love with Laurey. His performance was fully actualized, imbued with a moment-to-moment reality, rooted in the character’s motivation.

What should have been a riveting showdown between Jud and Curly was erased by the director’s choice to black out the scene and present the dialogue as a voiceover. It brought to a screeching halt what little action there was. The director used this same device once more and it was just as ineffective. I have to assume Scott Zielinski’s unimaginative light design was a failed collaboration between him and director Fish. Some of the signature songs included “The Surry with the Fringe on Top”, “Kansas City”, “I Cain’t Say No” “Many a New Day”, “People Will Say We’re in Love”, “Poor Jud is Daid”, “Out of My Dreams”, “The Farmer and the Cowman” and “All Er Nuthin”.

Whoever greenlit this production must have seen the award-winning version like anything in New York, stayed in New York, and never made it to the Ahmanson stage.

‘OKLAHOMA!
Ahmanson Theater
135 N. Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, California 90012
To run:
Tuesday-Friday: 8:00 p.m.
Saturday: 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.
Sunday: 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
Closing: Sunday October 16, 2022
Duration: 2h45 including an intermission
Tickets: $35 – $150
Reservations:
www.centertheatregroup.org
(213) 972-4400

About Selena J. Killeen

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