Oklahoma! at the Forrest Theatre

A new perspective on a toe-tapping classic.

Photo from the stage show of OKLAHOMA!
Hennessy Winkler, Sis, and the company of the national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA! Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Forgive me Dionysus, for I have sinned: This was my first time watching Oklahoma!. Any Oklahoma! Not even a charmingly-misguided high school production. No-klahoma.

I find myself in an ongoing conundrum with Golden Age musicals, and I’m not alone in this debate: is it worth sitting through the outdated material to get to what it can show us about today? Especially for audience members in marginalized communities, the risk of watching oppression continue unquestioned through song and dance often outweighs the joy of seeing yet another love triangle story. Watching this production, however, I was amazed to discover that the original text (which this revival keeps in its entirety) does not tell a conventional love triangle. Instead, it tells a story of the burden placed on women to assess and bear the danger of refusing a man. I can’t imagine any production of this show bringing that fact to the forefront the way this tour so effectively does.

Sasha Hutchings dancing on stage.
Sasha Hutchings and Sean Grandillo
Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Laurey, portrayed stunningly by Sasha Hutchings, must choose between suitors Curly and Jud, though it is clear to her and the town that she only considers Jud because she’s afraid of what he will do if she tells him no. Ultimately, Laurey’s conflict is not between two hopeful husbands, but between what she wants and what will keep her safe. This dilemma is emphasized by bold lighting choices, including moments in complete darkness, the spectacular chaos of Act 2’s opening dream ballet (my jaw dropped watching Gabrielle Hamilton perform this), and the casting of a masterfully looming Christopher Bannow as Jud. Laurey’s choice is unfortunately one that many women face. Domestic abuse and toxic masculinity have not gone away since Rodgers & Hammerstein’s time, and has worsened in many ways with online subcultures such as “incel” encouraging men to get what they want by whatever means necessary, including violence. How can you tell which refusal you give, however kindly phrased, will become a dangerous one?

The walls of the set serve as Chekhov’s more ambitious collection at a total of 114 guns. This staggering display is one that began conversations before the first note was played; right before curtain, I overheard a discussion between two fellow audience members about the first time they had ever fired a gun. Certainly not a standard pre-show conversation, but a stark reminder that gun violence is a normalized foundation of both the world of Oklahoma! and our society today. The Oklahoma! team has donated a minimum of $100 per gun to Gun Neutral, an initiative calling for greater social responsibility surrounding the depiction of gun violence in entertainment.

Will I bestow the ironic title “Woke-lahoma” that the internet has so often placed on this production? That would be a reductive assessment for me to make, grading an entire piece of work through what I as a white person perceive to be ”progressive enough”. The most evidence to the contrary is that, in keeping the original text 100%, the g-slur used against the Romani people did still make the cut. That said, the production gracefully walks the tightrope over the original text’s more outdated humor about women and relationships without plunging right back into misogyny, thanks in large part to the actors’ clever delivery.

A woman sings into a microphone.
Sis as Ado Annie
Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

As a transgender theatre artist and audience member, it is a rare theater outing that I get to watch not one but two transgender performers onstage, much less portraying a couple in love and not the punchline of bigoted jokes. Seeing Sis, who plays Ado Annie with luminous gusto, belt the line “How can I be what I ain’t?” and falling for Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler cracked me up several times with his performance) was a breath of fresh air during a time where Broadway seems insistent on producing unrelentingly transphobic narratives.

All of the heavier topics of this tour aside, watching this show was pure and absolute fun. From the outstanding work of the ensemble to a corn and Bud Light splash zone (yup, you read that right), this was a show I would absolutely watch again despite my previous misgivings about the original text. If you find yourself hesitant to take a chance on an older show, I encourage you to give the Oklahoma! tour a shot. If you have seen other productions and feel like you can miss yet another version of the same story, I can assure you that this is not just another version. As Twitter has been abuzz about since the 2019 Broadway revival debuted, this is not your grandparents’ Oklahoma!, and you will walk out of the Forrest Theatre with a new perspective on a toe-tapping classic.

The company of the national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA!
The company of the national tour of Oklahoma!
Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

 

Oklahoma! is running now until March 20th, 2022. Tickets can be purchased by calling 212-239-6200, visiting www.telecharge.com, or in-person at the Academy of Music box office daily from 10am-6pm. All audience members are required to show proof of vaccination with valid photo ID, and must remain masked while in the Forrest Theatre.

Learn more at www.kimmelculturalcampus.org.

  • Portrait of CJ Higgins

    CJ Higgins (they/them) is a queer and transgender theatre artist who specializes in performance, music, devising, directing, production, and whatever else a show needs at a given moment because that's Philly for you.

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