Oklahoma! at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

“Wow, everything is so bright!”, I remarked as I entered the Shea’s Performing Arts Center last night for the production of Oklahoma!. The lights on the stage felt as though they were turned up so high, it almost hurt my eyes. What I didn’t know was that things were about to get extremely dark…

Prior to attending this more recent touring version of Oklahoma! I’d only been familiar with the music from the original and hadn’t actually seen a live production of it. Perhaps it’s a good thing I’m not a die-hard classic Oklahoma! fan because I went into this experience more open-minded than others in the audience. If the original, classic production is your absolute favorite, this may not be the show for you, and I’ll break down exactly why.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Tells the story of a young farm girl, Laurey Williams (Sasha Hutchings), and her relationships with cowboy Curly McLain (Sean Grandillo) and farmhand Jud Fry (Christopher Bannow). There’s an upcoming social event in town and Curly is set on taking Laurey. However, due to their stubborn nature, neither is very good at communicating their exact feelings for each other. This leads to Laurey accepting Jud’s invitation to the box social even though she clearly voices that he makes her feel uneasy and that she’d rather go with Curly. Meanwhile, Will Parker (Hennessy Winkler) has just returned home from a trip with enough money to finally marry Ado Annie (Sis) who seems to have fallen for a Peddler, Ali Hakim (Benj Mirman) in his absence. 

The main premise of the story confused me as I feel like the entirety of the issues faced by the characters could have been avoided if Laurey hadn’t gone to the social with Jud just to spite Curly. At the social, Laurey avoids being alone with Jud until she is finally forced to face him and his unsettling threats. She runs back to Curly, they finally admit their feelings for each other, and they decide to get married all the while fearing Jud’s dangers. The character of Jud is extremely creepy. He mainly resides in an old smokehouse decorated with lewd photos of women and passes his time shooting bats. It’s clear he has become obsessed with Laurey and is often seen pacing outside her window at night. Christopher portrayed a perfectly haunted and ominous version of Jud that you get to further appreciate in extreme close-ups provided by an onstage camera used to project larger than life images of the actors onstage at certain points throughout the show. 

The most chilling scene for me was one that took place between Curly and Jud the smokehouse in Act I. This is the first time all of the lights are completely shut off so the audience is left sitting in total darkness only listening to the sounds of the actors’ voices. Curly discusses how Jud could kill himself and seems to be trying to convince him to do so. When you can at last see again, it’s only the black and white extreme close-up images of the two projected on the back wall of the stage as they each sit face to face holding microphones to deliver their lines. The first gunshot to go off in this scene caught me completely by surprise and caused me to jump along with many other audience members. It’s still hard to see clearly, so you have the anxiety of not-knowing what just happened or if a character was killed. The whole scene made me very uncomfortable, which is exactly how it was intended. When at last the bright lights come back on, you’re struck by the severe contrast of the tone.

Something worth noting is the refreshing diversity of the cast. While television and movies are beginning to display a far more diverse range of actors and characters, professional theatre has been lagging behind, especially for older classical musicals like those of Rogers and Hammerstein. This cast includes an array of various races, backgrounds, shapes, and sizes. Sasha as leading lady Laurey was an outstanding choice. I fell in love with her character choices, stage presence, and musical interpretations. Sis brings a completely new and unexpected representation of Ado Annie. It’s about time we brought similar diversity in casting to classic Broadway productions. 

Throughout the first act, I was pretty onboard with all the new artistic interpretations of this show. It’s the second act that definitely lost me. Act II opens with the Dream Ballet which typically portrays what Laurey is dreaming/hallucinating about Curly and Jud. In contrast, this version mainly displays the dancing abilities of just Gabrielle Hamilton as the Lead Dance. Gabrielle is without a doubt very talented and skilled in various styles of dance. However, the whole sequence seemed a bit too deep, symbolic, and “out there” for your typical audience member to grasp. I felt extremely confused and unsettled at the same time. It was also very long. In fact, the entire show is very long. Two hours and forty-five minutes to be exact. The second part of Act II that lost me was the final wedding sequence and song “Oklahoma”. Without giving too much away, it’s a pretty visual and upsetting representation of violence that contrasts completely with the song being sung. The show almost ends on a nice note! Things are finally going well and happily ever is was near. Then BANG! A tragedy.

Overall, this is a talented cast and creative reimagining of an old favorite. Sean as Curly was another standout for me whose voice will have swooning from the very beginning. Perhaps if you were prepared to experience the darkness and depth of what at one point could have been considered a more fun, light musical, you’d be more open to the theatrical experience. This isn’t a show for a casual theatregoer or your Grandma. This is a show for people who understand the complexity of theatre, symbolism, and artistic expression.

For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Oklahoma!’ at JCC CenterStage

Oklahoma!,” written in the early 1940’s, portrays a small farming town in the Indian Territory before Oklahoma received statehood in 1906. It highlights old fashioned ideals such as men are brave, women have their place, and this social contract is the underpinning of a successful and strong country. As the territory marches toward the formal veneer of statehood amidst general lawlessness, the men and women are grappling with upholding a veneer of propriety amidst feelings of love and lust.

The singing was wonderful throughout.

The two main characters are a farm girl, Laurey Williams, and a young rancher, Curly McLain, who would like to be her beau. Laurey (Abby Rice), and her friend Ado Annie Carnes (Jennie Gilardoni) are of marrying age but have very different perspectives on relationships with men. Laurey is a bit naïve, and is charmed by a farmhand with a dangerous reputation, Jud Fry (Benjamin Pesce). Laurey feels Curly (Jordan Bachmann) is a little too cock-sure and agrees to go to the box social dance with Jud to spite him. Ado Annie has been playing the field a bit while her beau, Will Parker (Chris Martin), is away in Kansas City. A peddler, Ali Hakim (Drew Jensen), and she have been flirting to the point that Ado Annie’s father strongly suggests they marry. Will returns to town in time for the box social dance hoping to claim Ado Annie’s hand.

The plot follows these two lovers’ triangles through darkness, fear, bawdiness, laughter, and one long and strange laudanum-induced dream sequence that was a little like how I imagine an acid trip might feel. The classic songs we all know, even if you have never seen “Oklahoma!,” weave through the show accompanied by lively dancing and exciting, acrobatic fight scenes. The singing was wonderful throughout. Mr. Bachmann and Ms. Rice performed beautiful renditions of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.” The live musical accompaniment—including banjo, guitar, and violin—was just the right touch to bring this musical down on the farm. Go see it and absorb the optimism of young people marrying and states being formed amid the chaos of life.

Approximately 2 hours, 45 minutes (including a 15-minute intermission).

“Oklahoma!” runs until May 19, 2019 and is presented at JCC CenterStage Theater in Rochester. For more information, click here.