The view from the back row of the main floor of the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN during a production of the national tour of the Broadway revival of the musical Oklahoma!

Review: Broadway’s Spellbinding “Oklahoma!” Is Dead on Arrival in Minneapolis

There is no bigger fan of Daniel Fish’s reimagining of Oklahoma! than me. At least, no bigger in Minnesota (in New York, there were a number of devoted followers). When I saw the Broadway production in December of 2019, I captioned a post on Instagram, “O-K-L-A-H-O-L-Y-S-H-I-T!!!” In my top 100 songs on Spotify of 2020, 14 of the cast album’s 16 songs made the cut. Anyone who has hung out with me during the pandemic knows my go-to hat is a blue denim cap that says “OK!” on the front and “Yeehaw!” on the back, one piece of the show’s uncharacteristically well-designed merch. 

Imagine my disappointment, then, that I must now tell you that the production of that same exact show kicking off its national tour in Minneapolis at the Orpheum Theatre through November 14 is not worth the price of admission, no matter how desperately you want to get back to the theater or experience this Tony-winning production. If you’ve already been downtown to see it, you likely already know a similar disappointment (a few audience members sitting near me did not come back after intermission), but the full scope of my disenchantment can only be understood by comparing the Broadway triumph to this touring version. 

The biggest failure is not a result of Fish’s avant-garde interpretation or the performance of the cast or seven-piece band. It was the sound, or lack thereof. Sitting in the back row in the center of the main floor, I couldn’t hear half of the words uttered on stage, whether they were talking or singing, a problem that was immediately echoed at intermission by my six companions that night and, later, in comments online. The Orpheum has a reputation for sound getting lost in its 2,600-seat theater; while certainly unacceptable in previous productions, here it was an exasperating failing that shows a willful disregard for the audience (except, perhaps, the first ten rows). 

I’m sorry, Curly, one of your horses is like snow and the other’s more like what? You can walk to where in the rain without wetting your feet, Will Parker? And what the hell does Jud want to buy from the peddler Ali Hakim? If you’ve never seen a production of Oklahoma! before, like two of the people I went to the theater with, or if you simply haven’t listened to the album on repeat for the last two years, like myself, you may leave the theater not knowing the answers to questions like these.

It’s all the more unfortunate given that the basis for the radical changes Fish has made is simply the original text itself. Here, we have a sparse set of picnic tables occasionally bathed in green and orange light, a couple moments when the entire theater is swallowed in darkness before onstage cameras project towering close-ups of the actors’ faces, and the penultimate assembly — sometimes played for laughs, sometimes with frantic energy — imbued with a chilling stillness. Fish uses these tactics not just to emphasize the words, written in the early ‘40s, but to make the audience understand them and their larger implications, and ultimately reconsider them to the point of astonishment. 

But since most of the audience can’t actually hear those words, these experimental theatrical trappings will likely be seen by the audience as shallow, when really, in a worthwhile production, they have proved to be revelatory. 

However, even if this failing had been rectified — throughout the production, actors occasionally grab microphones which amplify their singing to a volume where you can actually understand the lyrics, so why not mic everyone up the entire time? — this touring version would still be dead on arrival from Broadway due to a cast that, with a couple exceptions, seems like they want to be there as much as the audience members who left at intermission. 

The night I saw the Broadway production, Curly and Jud were both played by understudies (the latter was Christopher Bannow, who stars as Jud in this touring version), and so was Laurey for half of the performance when Sasha Hutchings stepped in for Rebecca Naomi Jones for an undisclosed reason. Despite a cast led by the B-squad, the entire company lassoed and hog-tied me with their mix of charm, seduction, contempt, rage and zest for life. 

At the Orpheum, it seemed as though this mostly new cast was doing a read-through around a table, not a performance for a packed, eager house. “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” one of the most iconic songs in all of musical theater, was a passing ditty at the hands of Sean Grandillo’s Curly. Barbara Walsh’s first line as Aunt Eller — “Skeer me to death!” — has no feeling of surprise, a sign of things to come. Instead of giving the show a healthy dose of charisma, Hennessy Winkler and Benj Mirman, as Ado Annie’s two suitors Will Parker and Ali Hakim, leave silence in their wake. Two of their songs — “Kansas City” and “It’s a Scandal! It’s a Outrage!” — are guaranteed hits in traditional productions (and were so even in the reworked, supposedly darker Broadway version). Here, Winkler and Mirman seemed bored.

When it was time for “I Cain’t Say No,” Ado Annie’s barnburner in the first act, there was a glimmer of hope. The actor Sis started the song with welcome verve and grabbed a microphone, amplifying her voice to the point of comprehension, but in the end she couldn’t quite hit or sustain the notes. Her performance also provided a preview of the reworked choreography that would be copied throughout the rest of the show: walk to the right, walk to the left, sit down, stand up, walk to the right, walk to the left, and not much else. It appears the team’s big idea in translating this show for a larger stage (on Broadway, it played in the round at the 776-seat Circle in the Square Theatre) was to cut down the choreography instead of expand it. 

I said there are a couple exceptions to this, and they are all carryovers from the Broadway production. Gabrielle Hamilton’s solo Dream Ballet that begins the second act is just as audacious and unrelenting as then, Sasha Hutchings still imbues Laurey with a fiery agency you won’t see in other productions, and Christopher Bannow’s spectacular Jud almost, almost makes it worth paying for this production. His intimate rendition of “Pore Jud Is Daid” with Grandillo is still a sight to behold, and his take on “Lonely Room” is the best song of the show by far. 

The final nail in the coffin — serious spoilers ahead — comes near the end during Curly and Laurey’s wedding. The two walk onstage dressed all in white, the groom included. In Minneapolis, Curly shoots Jud dead, but the married couple finish the musical in the same snowy white garb they entered with. On Broadway, when Curly shoots Jud, due to the proximity of the men, blood splatters across the newlyweds. Holding Laurey’s hand, the murderer who has been declared not guilty is left to sing “Oh, what a beautiful day” while covered with the evidence of his crime. It’s a shocking, powerful, divisive ending to a spellbinding reimagining of a classic. But here in Minneapolis, it’s edited out.

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