‘Oklahoma!’ (2019 Revival): A Deconstruction of a Theatrical Classic

Take one of the most famous musicals of all time, the 1931 Rodgers and Hammerstein Oklahoma!. It’s nearly a century old, and is dated in its takes on gender, sexual dynamics, and traditional American values from the time. It has some darkness lurking in its story, but it’s always buried under the surface, opting for unbridled optimism instead. It’s fun, it’s a crowd-pleaser, it’s a classic.

Say you want to deconstruct and satirize Oklahoma!. Why not make a new musical (Wyoming!), a commentary on some of the messed up norms that are accepted in the name of a fun, surface-level musical?

Now imagine that instead of making this new satire, you simply change the tone of the original Oklahoma! musical to bring all of its darkness right to the forefront. That’s exactly what the Oklahoma! 2019 revival does; the lyrics and script are all identical to the original, and yet the sharp edge is front and center rather than buried beneath glitz and glam.

As a mild warning, I am going to be [spoiling] plot elements of the show. It is Oklahoma! though, so I expect the basic plot points will be fairly well-known, and I somewhat doubt this particular revival will be touring again soon.

The show is set on a minimalist stage; essentially no sets are used, and few props other than some picnic tables, crockpots, beers, and guns. Costumes are fairly contemporary-Western as well, without much concern about seeming early 1900s period appropriate. The songs are harder-edged, louder, and more aggressive.

The real changes, however, are to the characters. Curly is shown to be a full-on “alpha” bully, wooing Laurey through “negging” and an overly-aggressive attitude that makes the audience feel uncomfortable. Rather than being “torn between two men,” Ado Annie is portrayed as extremely sexually promiscuous, forced by her father into a marriage between one of several men. And Jud Fry goes from leering brute to a full-on malicious incel, believing he is entitled to the leading lady’s love because that’s just how things are.

One of my favorite moments is a completely pitch black performance of “Pore Jud is Daid”, the song in which Curly tells Jud about his hypothetical suicide and the town’s sarcastically upset reaction to it. Of course, this show brings to the forefront the notion of Curly bullying Jud, trying to convince him that maybe he’d be loved more in death than in life. An infrared camera is used in the sequence so that close-ups of Curry and Jud’s faces are projected onto the wall behind them (again, with the actors in pitch black). During the extremely intimate song, the camera lingers on Jud’s face, so that we catch his hate-filled yet self-loathing reaction to the hurtful words Curly is singing.

The second act opens with a new rendition of the “Dream Ballet” that closes the original’s first act. Rather than having any concrete impact on the plot, the dance simply features a dancer in a long white t-shirt that reads “Dream Baby Dream.” An electric guitar plays the orchestral score as this dancer performs barefoot modern dance in the 10-minute sequence that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot.

In the climax of the show, Jud and Curly have their final confrontation. The original show ends in a showdown in which Jud tries to murder Curly by brandishing a knife, and when Curly fights back, Jud ends up falling on his own knife. Not so in the revival. While Jud is the initial aggressor, he recognizes he has lost and provides Curly with a gun, threatening Curly and basically daring him to end the conflict directly. Curly takes the opportunity to shoot Jud in cold blood, spraying blood on both he and Laurey. The town comes together, and in monotone recites the final dialogue of the show, a sham trial in which Curly’s murder of Jud is dismissed as self-defense. No one comes to Jud’s defense, and the premonition in “Pore Jud is Daid” is confirmed; ultimately, no one cared about him. Then the company ends by singing the joyous (but now darkly-tinged) title song “Oklahoma!”, as Laurey is still distraught in her blood-soaked clothing.

What took this from being a really interesting exercise in commentary to being a transcendent experience for me was watching the audience’s reaction. You see, when this revival played on Broadway, I think most people had a pretty good idea of what they were getting into. Most reviews were something along the lines of “this ain’t your grandmother’s Oklahoma!,” and the audience may not have known exactly what to expect, but they knew it may be odd and challenging.

Not so for the traveling tour. I saw this in Providence in 2022. When our local theater announces its schedule, most patrons take it at face value. If My Fair Lady comes to town, you’re pretty sure you’re going to see a mostly vanilla, very familiar showing of My Fair Lady. So when the (very traditional) theater-going audience of Providence goes to see Oklahoma!, they think they’re seeing the same show they’ve seen a dozen times before, rather than Sexy Oklahoma: A Deconstruction of a Rodgers and Hammerstein Classic. And once that darkness comes to the forefront, you can see people squirm in their seats. It seemed as though half the audience left at intermission, either offended or disgusted or maybe just bored with what they were witnessing.

That is what I found so special about this show: somehow audiences across the country are duped into seeing a dark, morally complicated critique of a show that most theater lovers know and love. And while I can’t blame them for walking out, I have to applaud the audacity of challenging the audience’s preconceived notions and morality behind narratives that they think they know.

I suspect the run of Oklahoma! (2019) is over now, and based on the audience reaction I saw, I wouldn’t expect it to be touring again anytime soon. However, I highly recommend seeking out the soundtrack on Spotify or wherever to get a taste of the show; “I Cain’t Say No,” “Oh What A Beautiful Morning,” and “Dream Ballet” in particular are all bangers.

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