Spiritless OKLAHOMA! Wastes Talent (and Time)

In principle, the national tour of Oklahoma! should be commendable.

The cast includes not one, but two, transgender performers in principal roles. In addition, the actors’ pronouns are listed in the show program. And the show, which “aims to reflect the concerns of an overwhelmingly diverse American society,” is cast accordingly.

Not So Fast

So, what could possibly be wrong? Clearly, a lot. Though the biggest offense is this production breaks one of its own cardinal rules.

Inspired by Lynn Rigg’s play Green Grow the Lilacs, Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers’ Oklahoma! opened in 1943. The show is set in the early 20th century, on the verge of Oklahoma becoming a state. And although its lovesick storylines are a distraction for white audiences sitting on stolen land, history is not lost on these creators.

When the Tony Award-winning revival opened at Circle in the Square in 2019, Director Daniel Fish rejected the idea of a traditional, proscenium stage. He purposefully placed the audience in the round. He even doled out chili and cornbread from red crockpots during intermission.

“The core of the design is that we’re all in this together,” he said.

As a result, that production felt both experimental and experiential. More important, it resonated with some audiences, who appreciated its “wide-awake” rebirth.

It’s a Big Letdown

On tour, it is nearly impossible to stage a show in the round. So, Fish is forced to work within the constraints of a proscenium stage. Thus, the audience is detached from this mess, leaving many, quite literally, in the dark.

Audiences wishing to reconnect with an old friend, a quintessential piece of musical theater, will feel let down. Those searching for something visionary, will be questioning its soullessness. Either way, this tour feels like a wasted moment and an even bigger waste of talent.

Oklahoma! runs through Sunday at the Durham Performing Arts Center. For more information, visit https://www.dpacnc.com/.

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