PPAC: Not your grandma’s Oklahoma!

The company of the national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA!. Photo: Matt Murphy – MurphyMade.

By Kimberly Rau

The national tour of the revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Oklahoma!” is in Providence this week, and if you’re looking for a fully orchestrated by-the-numbers retelling of prairie life in the early 1900s…this isn’t it.

But it’s so much more.

This ultra-modernization strips the musical down to its bare bones but doesn’t change the script much, which makes its contemporary styling (modern clothing, cans of beer, sparse set and more rifles than you know what to do with mounted to the wall) even more poignant. This is not a new story, or an outdated one. It’s the same story we’ve been telling over and over. Just listen to the men in “It’s a Scandal! It’s a Outrage” essentially complaining that no one can have any fun nowadays because people (girls’ fathers) just get too easily triggered (literally).

Under the direction of Daniel Fish, the plight of our farmers-and-cowmen in the Oklahoma territory gets new relevance. Ado Annie is still the same optimistic boy crazy young woman, but with a whole lot more agency. Sis, the actress who plays Annie, infuses the role with some serious top-dog energy, and makes it clear that she’s the one calling the shots, not her hapless suitors. “I Cain’t Say No” hits a whole lot differently when you realize she “can’t” say no because she doesn’t want to…and doesn’t care what you think about that.  

Not to be left on the sidelines, Laurie, our ingénue, has always had agency (the typical “headstrong woman”). That said, she is still trapped by society’s expectations, which allows us to see what happens when women are afraid to say no or stop a train wreck of an evening out of fear of being impolite. At the performance we saw, Cameron Anika Hill played Laurie with great range and talent. Those familiar with the original musical may be surprised to hear that Laurie’s high soprano songs have been turned into belting numbers, but it’s a change that works for this revival.

The very talented actors Hennessey Winkler and Sean Grandillo play Will and Curly, respectively, and hit all the right notes as Ado Annie and Laurie’s suitors. Winkler does a great job showcasing both Will’s lack of intellect but also his complete acceptance of his girl just as she is. Grandillo does fine as Laurie’s beau (who also dabbles as a guitar-playing country music soloist for some of Curly’s songs) but really shines as the straw that breaks Jud Fry’s back, as he essentially tries to bully him into committing suicide.

Which brings us to Jud Fry, the reclusive and odd farmhand who has taken a shine to Laurie. Played by Christopher Bannow, this Jud Fry is less a creepy pervert and more an awkward outcast with a serious dangerous streak that comes out when he is frustrated with his inability to connect with those around him. (This is no way an attempt to excuse his character’s problematic behavior.) From his feelings of entitlement towards “having” Laurie to his portrayal as possibly being (but never spelled out) neurodivergent, there is a lot of commentary to be mined from Bannow’s amazing portrayal (which includes a glorious singing voice).

Other changes include the orchestra being replaced by a bluegrass band, which may not have been in keeping with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original work but is certainly germane to the time and place the show is set. The dream ballet has been replaced by a fantastic modern dance piece, and use of handheld video cameras gives an up close and personal view of certain scenes. And the ending is certainly not what you’re expecting. The bottom line is, it’s different. Very different. But it works beautifully.

This is not the show to go see if you want high soprano trills and soaring orchestrations against an over-saturated blue sky. Rent the movie for that. But if you believe that revivals are best when they find something new to tell us, rather than simply rehashing what’s already been done, then you are going to find a goldmine in this show.

Oklahoma! runs through March 27 at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset St., Providence. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, online at ppacri.org or by calling 401.421.2787. This show is recommended for audiences ages 12 and up.