Oklahoma! (Don’t Forget the Exclamation Point!!)

by Sarah Schultz

Photo by Matt Murphy

There’s a bright golden haze on the Orpheum Theater as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! comes sweepin’ down the plain November 9-14. This 2019 revival of the groundbreaking 1943 original breathes new life into a seminal musical theater piece.

While every word of the original book remains the same, production elements pull the story through time to present day. Laura Jellinek’s scenic design sets the stage for a barbeque with bare plank picnic tables, beer coolers, and slow cookers.  Costumes (designed by Terese Wadden) include denim miniskirts, hoodies, and t-shirts. Daniel Kluger has pared down Rodgers’ lush score and arranged it for a 7 piece bluegrass band. The timeless melodies remain while the sparser ensemble adds a modern, Americana feel. Particularly in numbers like “Cain’t Say No” and “Oklahoma,” the strings’ percussive pulse adds an energy that the original orchestrations lack. One particular charming beat occurs during the opening strains of “Many a New Day.” Preparing to sing about exactly how unbothered they are by troublesome men, the women all grab beer cans. They pop their tabs synchronously, landing perfectly on beat and serving as a musical button to the song’s introduction. 

Scott Zielinski’s lighting design sprinkles surprising moments into this familiar show. After the box social, when Laurie (Sasha Hutchings) finds herself alone with Judd (Christopher Bannow), the theater goes dark. The pitch black draws complete focus to each sound from the stage. Without the context of facial expressions and body language, Laurie and Judd’s dialogue gains ambiguity. The audience hears kissing, then shuffling, then dim lights illuminate Laurie squaring off several feet away from Judd. Judd is undeniably the villain of the story, but this production does not present Laurie as a helpless, passive victim. The murkiness of this scene and the raw sexuality of the dream ballet suggest that Laurie may have initiated some of the physicality between herself and Judd. Rather than just an innocent farm girl stuck with a ranch hand while pining after a cowboy, Laurie becomes a young woman wrestling with new urges and curiosities. John Heginbotham’s choreography and Daniel Fish’s staging suggest that Laurie pursues Judd not only to taunt Curly, but to explore her own primal and conflicting urges. 

Brought to life by a talented company of actors and musicians, this iteration of Oklahoma! juxtaposes frontier America with the current day United States. It depicts a rapidly changing society wrought with uncertainty and division. Classic and surprising, exuberant with a touch of despair, Oklahoma! illustrates the vitality of community. 

For tickets visit the State Theatre Box Office (805 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis), call (800) 982-2787, or visit HennepinTheatreTrust.org. 

Show dates are Tuesday, Nov. 9 to Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021 at the historic Orpheum Theatre. Performance times are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 and 6:30 

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