So let me just say up front that the national touring production of “Oklahoma!” that opened this week at the Durham Performing Arts Center is not quite like any production of the 1943 musical you’ve seen before unless you saw this Tony Award-winning revival on Broadway during its 2019 run.
Without altering the existing text, Director Daniel Fish and this extremely talented 12-member ensemble shine a new light on this classic tale of two romantic triangles, one played for drama, the other for laughs. What’s different is that a show that was originally normally presented as a celebration of the American spirit has been revamped to unearths the darkness beneath the surface with fear-based hostility toward outsiders that continues to fester today.
The musical takes place, ostensibly, in the early 1900s with Oklahoma on the cusp of statehood. The basic story is the same: a tale about farm girl Laurey and her courtship by two rival suitors, cowboy Curly and the farmhand Jud. Violence and the threat of violence is simmering just below the surface throughout this production. The setting staging is simple, with most of the story takes place in a community hall festooned with gun racks, holding dozens of rifles hinting at the legacy of violence that continues to infect the social landscape of America today.
Ordinarily, the story pits good guy Curly against the sinister Jud, but in this production Jud is portrayed as a somewhat sympathetic character while “good guy” Curly ultimately gives in to violence to get what he wants and a community that conspires to bend justice and overlook the crime.
Fish’s production constantly surprises with such touches as live-feed black-and-white night-vision video of the actors and some scenes played entirely in darkness. You can feel the audience holding its collective breath during some of the darker exchanges. Other scenes are more static and slow, with actors seated. With intermission musical clocks is almost three hours.
Though it does have its lighter moments, this production is often more thought-provoking than merely optimistic. The ending of this “Oklahoma!” manages to be both unsettling and enlightening, turning what used to be a happy and joyous ending into a more modern statement view of how our justice system favors the powerful.
The ending of this “Oklahoma!” manages to be both ominous and enlightening, turning what used to be a happy ending into a view of how our criminal justice system favors the powerful. During the final number, a reprise of the title song, you can’t help but feel everyone is singing the song of optimism so hard because they’re trying to purge their underlying sorrow and trauma.
Oklahoma! shows at DPAC through this Sunday, April 3rd. To get tickets visit https://www.dpacnc.com/events/detail/oklahoma