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A New 'Oklahoma!' in San Francisco Leans Into the Original's Eerie Undertones

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A young black female dancer leaps in the air as yellow smoke pours out over the play's cast
A new staging of 'Oklahoma!' updates the Rogers & Hammerstein classic in refreshing and at times experimental fashion. (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

The new Oklahoma! that’s in San Francisco now is more than just OK. It’s a captivating spin on the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic that pulls off a rare parlor trick: Without changing any of the 70-year-old musical’s lyrics or dialogue, it feels like it could have been written last month.

Some of this is because of the diverse, multi-racial casting, but tell your uncle at the next family get-together to save the “Wokelahoma” jokes, because this staging isn’t the finger-wagging lecture in identity that he thinks it is.

Instead, this Oklahoma! gets downright avant-garde. A dancer (Jordan Wynn) performs to a jagged, angular medley as cowboy boots inexplicably fall to the stage. Entire scenes unfold in the dark. Songs you know as jubilant are sung through pained tears.

Sis in the touring production of ‘Oklahoma!’ (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Why does it work? Accompanied by an on-stage bluegrass combo, the songs, obviously, are great. (A rousing “I Cain’t Say No” sung by the Black trans actor Sis manages to out-camp the original, bringing the house down.) But the direction by Daniel Fish is what matters here: it leans unflinchingly into the original story’s dark corners, even past the hokum of the main courting-ritual narrative between Curly and Laurey (Sean Grandillo and Sasha Hutchings).

A balance of the old and the new is hard to strike, especially with a bona fide classic of American musical theater. This new Oklahoma! is a fever dream in the best possible way, and one that should resonate with first-timers as well as longtime fans.


‘Oklahoma!’ runs through Sept. 11 at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. Details here.

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