🎭 Taking Off the Rose Colored Glasses | “Oklahoma” @ Ahmanson

Oklahoma (Ahmanson)Memory can be funny thing. When we look back on memories of things we often see just the good. If I was to mention Rogers and Hammerstein to you, and ask you what you remember from their shows, what would it be? The sunniness and light of Oklahoma!? The children singing in Sound of Music? The love story in The King and I or South Pacific? The happy joyous songs?

But guess what: That’s a memory that was engineered by a series of 1950s and 1960s musicals, which had to be cheery and light to sell tickets and get past the approval boards. But what precisely made Rogers and Hammerstein so revolutionary (and, indeed, what Hammerstein started even earlier with Show Boat) was the underlying commentary in their librettos. Sexual violence in Carousel. Racism in South Pacific. The spectre of the Nazis in The Sound of Music. Slavery and oppression of people in The King and I. Rogers and Hammerstein were successful because of their political commentary, and how that commentary was such a change from the brain-dead, saccharine sweet musicals of the 1940s and 1950s.

But our memories have been whitewashed, with an emphasis on the “white”, by the movie musicals and the endless cute revivals of these shows. We go in with an expectation of what the show is — and when that expectation is not met, we are disappointed, angry, and we write off the production as something we don’t like. We are so constrained by our expectations we fail to see the real, underlying text and commentary.

This is clearly playing out in the reaction to the Bard Summerscape production of Oklahoma!, directed by Daniel Fish, currently at the Ahmanson Theatre. The reaction that I’ve seen is that people either love it or hate it. But what they forget is that not a single word has been changed from the original text; not a single song is omitted. All of Richard Rodgers‘ music is there. The book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II is still there. It is still drawn from “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs. It just is a production that emphasizes the darker nature that has been in the story rather than the expected cheeriness and light. For many, this is not the Oklahoma! they grew up with and knew. It’s not that warm apple pie on the porch; it isn’t Shirley Jones and Gordon McRae, or Florence Henderson, or any of the numerous bubbly blondes that have done the role. But guess what folks? Read the synopsis of the movie musical. It is the same story.

Furthermore, when you look at the story, the same hatreds are there today. The fear of the lower class workers. The justification for self-defense killing when the defendant is well-respected (the only thing that would have made this stronger was if Judd was cast strongly with a minority actor). Just think about the line, made famous by the Monkees’ in “Zilch”, “Nevermind the furthermore, the plea is self-defense” — from the end of Oklahoma!, referring to a self-defense excuse for innocence, ignoring the other facts. That wouldn’t happen to day … would it?

There were also other modern themes. The fear of sexual violence especially when men do not take “no” for an answer. The castigation of women when they want their own sexual agency.  The tendency in some cultures to overprotect women or to sell them to the highest bidder — independent of what the woman might want. Gun violence.

This is all in Oklahoma! folks. It’s there in the movie.

So what does this production do that offends folks so? It strips the veneer from the story to expose this scaffolding. The stage doesn’t open on a cornfield; there is no surrey or farmhouse. There is no action in the fields. This takes place in a modern gymnasium, with bright lights and gopro cameras. There are crockpots of chili, and folks dressed modern. There is a mix of races, gender identities, sizes. This isn’t a whitewashed farm in lily-white Oklahoma. Just setting aside that traditional staging bothers people enough that they shut down.

Then there is the staging. This isn’t realistic, transporting you back to the farm. You have to imagine that based on the story and the performances. There are also times they play with your perception: the smokehouse scene is done in the dark, with just the actors on microphones. There is stark video at times. The dream ballet isn’t this nice gentle ballet, but an acid-rock tinged interpretation of the music with a single dancer abstractly expressing their fears. There are gunshots, and at the end, there is bloodshed. Oh, and the first few rows are a literal splash zone. This isn’t as bad as The Lieutenant of Inishmore, but be prepared.

Lastly, there is the music. One expects Oklahoma! to have this lush full orchestral score. This is a stripped down western ensemble: banjo, guitar, bass, fiddle, cello, accordion, etc. No brass section. No woodwinds. Not what one expects from a show like this.

Think about it this way, folks. Rogers and Hammerstein came upon the scene in 1943. That’s almost 70 years ago. We’ve been taking Shakespeare’s words and using them unchanged in different settings to highlight meaning. That’s all this production is doing. If you can go into this production setting aside your pre-conceived notions of what this show is, and accept the conceit of how the director is trying to emphasize the story and not the schmaltz, you’ll enjoy this. If you can’t set aside your expectations, skip this production and go see a regional production that does it in a traditional manner.

From the above, you may believe this is saying that I liked everything about the show. I didn’t.

First, I wasn’t that enamored of the dream ballet. I understand that was the approach taken in shows in the 1940s and it was convention. But I don’t think the intent comes across well, and especially in the new staging, it was difficult to tease out the meaning. The dance was beautiful, but the symbolism was not conveyed well. The program credits Agnes De Mille‘s original choreography, but I think that’s more contractual because little of that remains. This production features choreography by John Heginbotham. Generally what that was worked well (this wasn’t a heavy dance show, unlike other productions of this title), but the dream ballet just failed me.

Second, echoing last week even more, I hate hate hate digital programs. Both The Pasadena Playhouse and CTG are using the new Performances platform. But this requires an account separate for each theatre (you would think a combined account would work), and you can’t read the program until you create the account (meaning you can’t do things easily during an intermission). Further, the program app is filled with notifications and settings and preferences that just bog things down even worse than a static website. Theatres: The cost of the paper is minuscule compared to the goodwill and memory a printed program provides. Make them shorter if you will, but provide a printed program and make your digital programs easy to navigate.

Lastly, the casting. I thought the mixed race, etc. casting was good, but it could have been better. First, although Sis was wonderful, I would have loved to see the tour continue to push the movement that Ally Stroker started to have more disabled actors on stage. That sends a vital message — especially on tours — both to the folks in the audience and the folks running the theatre. Secondly, the casting of Judd should have been more explicitly minority. Hired hands in that era weren’t white. Making that explicit serves to highlight the racism that underlies the tension in the story of Judd Fry. Was Judd really as threatening as he was made out to be, or was this an expectation or perception built out of prejudice. What we had was good; it could have been great.

The cast was uniformly strong. Hunter Hoffman, filling in for Sean Grandillo (Curley McLain) had a lovely voice and a good rapport with Sasha Hutchings (Laurey Williams). Hutchings was also strong, bringing a great internal fire and independence to Laurey (especially in Act II). Sis (Ado Annie) brought a unique take to the role — again, a load of energy and fire and spunk that played well off of both Hennessy Winkler (Will Parker) and Benj Mirman (Ali Hakim). Christopher Bannow (Judd Fry) was suitably menacing and had a good singing voice, but I’m not sure he conveyed the depth of fear that justified the end. Barbara Walsh (Aunt Eller) was a modern Ma Kettle midwestern non-nonsense broad, but brought some interesting sexual tension to the role I hadn’t noticed before. I also also smitten with Hannah Solow (Gertie Cummings): a character I had never noticed much in the story before, but she brought some unique characterizations and playfulness to the role.

Rounding out the main cast were: Ugo Chukwu (Cord Elam), Mitch Tebo (Andrew Carnes), Mauricio Lozano (Mike), and Jordan Wynn (Lead Dancer). Understudies in various roles were: Gillian Hassert (u/s Aunt Eller, Gertie Cummings), Cameron Anika Hill (u/s Laurey Williams, Lead Dancer, Cord, Mike), Minga Prather (Alternate Lead Dancer, Asst. Stage Manager), Scott Redmond (u/s Ali Hakim, Curly McLain, Cord Elam, Mike, Will Parker), and Gwynne Wood (u/s Laurey Williams, Ado Annie).

Music was provided by an on-stage orchestra led by Andy Collopy (Conductor, Accordion, Drums), and consisting of Dominic Lamorte (Assoc. Conductor, Upright Bass), Rick Snell (Mandolin, Electric Guitar), Josh Kaler (Pedal Steel, Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar), Justin Hiltner (Banjo), 🌴 Olivia Breidenthal (Violin), Caleb Vaughn-Jones (Cello), and occasionally, the fellow playing Curley (Hunter Hoffman, at our performance) on Guitar. Other members of the music department were: Daniel Kluger (Arrangements and Orchestrations), Nathan Koci (Music Supervision and Additional Vocal Arrangements), John Miller (Music Coordinator), Anixter Rice Music Services (Music Preparation), Robert Payne (🌴 Los Angeles Contractor). I did appreciate the fact that the orchestra joined the cast in the bows at the end of the show.

The design team consisted of: Laura Jellinek (Set Design), Terese Wadden (Costume Designer), Scott Zielinski (Lighting Designer), Drew Levy (Sound Designer), Joshua Thorson (Projection Designer), and Jeremy Chernick (Special Effects Design). I mentioned the set design before: very stark gym vibe, wooden floor, no fly scrims or anything like that. Lighting was equally harsh: either all on, green, or red. I couldn’t judge sound too well, as I’m healing from ear surgery that muffled things (my wife said it was clear). I do want to note the show’s attitude on guns, which were all around the stage. They made clear from the onset that these were prop guns, could not fire live ammo, and there was indeed no live ammo in the theatre at all. Further, they partnered with Gun Neutral, an initiative that takes donations for each visible gun on stage to fight gun violence and fund STEM grants.

Rounding out the production team were Taylor Williams CSA (Casting), Eszter Zádor (Stage Manager), Mikhaela Mahony (Assoc. Director), Jordan Fein (Assoc. Director), Daniel Kells (Production Stage Manager), Minga Prather (Asst. Stage Manager), and SB Production Services (Technical Supervisor).

Oklahoma! continues at the Ahmanson Theatre through October 16. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson box office. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar, as well as through TodayTix. If you can set aside your expectations for a traditional, sickly-sweet production of Oklahoma!, this is well worth seeing.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member (modulo the COVID break). I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Actors Co-op (FB), 5 Star Theatricals (FB), Broadway in Hollywood (FB), the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and we have a membership at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB). We were subscribing at the Musical Theatre Guild (FB) prior to COVID; they have not yet resumed productions. We have also been subscribers at the Soraya/VPAC (FB), although we are waiting a year before we pick that up again. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups. Note to publicists or producers reading this: here’s my policy on taking comp tickets. Bottom-Line: Only for things of nominal value, like Fringe.

Upcoming Shows:

For right now, we’re pretty much sticking with shows that come as part of our subscriptions or are of interest through our memberships. Looking ahead for the remainder of 2022:, October will bring Sanctuary City at the The Pasadena Playhouse  (FB), Ghosts at the Odyssey Theatre EnsembleThe Addams Family at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), and To Kill a Mockingbird at Broadway in Hollywood (FB). November brings 2:22 – A Ghost Story at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Lastly, December will bring Annie at Broadway in Hollywood (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarOn Stage 411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget (although I know it is outdated and need to update it). Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country (again, I need to review this for the post-COVID theatre landscape)!