Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “OKLAHOMA!” is a classic musical that is beloved by theatre fans, so when the latest Broadway revival of the 1943 show, directed by Daniel Fish, championed its modern changes, some were skeptical.
However, it quickly became a critical and audience favorite, taking home the Tony Award for Best Revival in 2019. The touring production of the show comes to the Kennedy Center for a limited run, April 5-10.
One of the big changes involves the famous “Dream Ballet,” originally choreographed by Agnes de Mille, and reimagined with a 21st Century flare by choreographer John Heginbotham. This has always been crucial to the story, and now takes on an even deeper meaning.
“There’s not a ton of wild movement that happens up to that point and this serves to take us deeper into Laurey’s experience and helps us make sense of what happens after the ‘Dream Ballet,’ when she does make some decisions and maybe has a bit more confidence in her sexuality,” Heginbotham says.
Once Act 2 begins, lead dancer Gabrielle Hamilton takes the stage, barefoot and wearing a shirt with the phrase, “Dream Baby Dream” on it, and it’s obvious that this is not your grandparent’s “Dream Ballet.”
“The iconic ‘Dream Ballet’ was so expressive, and in the original, all the cast participated in the sequence, but with ours, you are introduced to someone you’ve never been introduced to before,” Hamilton says. “There’s smoke and heavy metal attached to the music, but also a sadness and melancholy that comes with the sequence. This is 13 minutes of one person dancing and exploring themselves and the space.”
What’s more, being a Black woman with a shaved head and tattoos, doing movements that are considered radical, Hamilton feels makes it even more important and special.
“It’s very representative of our world right now, and representative of our people as well,” she says. “The original “OKLAHOMA!” had a white cast. Now, we are accepting and pushing more people of all varieties on the stage. It’s refreshing to see art is not divided into a specific group of people.”
Heginbotham, who considers the dance in the original to be a masterpiece, was thrilled to be involved with this revival since the beginning and has continued to craft and refine things for the National Tour and as the show gets ready to make its bow in London.
“My goal has been since the beginning to make sure all the dance — and all the movements that wouldn’t be necessarily considered dance — supports what the script and Daniel sees in the script, to tie everything together,” he says. “The cool thing about Daniel is even though it’s the same show, he approaches each rendition of it as if it is new, so we invent it again.”
For instance, on Broadway, the show was done with audience members on three sides, but on tour, it’s less immersive because the seating is proscenium, and changes needed to reflect that.
When crafting his vision, Heginbotham was provided archival film by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization of Agnes de Mille working with students and in-rehearsal footage from the original production.
“It certainly gave me a bigger context for the production we were working on,” he says. “This version doesn’t look like the original production in most ways visually, but there’s one motif from the ‘Dream Ballet’ that I did put in mine as a homage to Agnes de Mille. It’s a galloping movement, and in her version, the cowboys do this slow gallop that looks like they are imitating riding a horse, and I did make that prominent as a way to get our lead dancer to travel up the stage.”
“OKLAHOMA!” stars Sasha Hutchings as Laurey Williams, Sean Grandillo as Curly McLain and Christopher Bannow as Jud Fry.
“This is a really important show and all of the music that everyone loves is still there even though it’s a new take on this classic,” Heginbotham says. “And I have to say the performances by this cast are outstanding.”
To learn more about OKLAHOMA! and purchase tickets, visit here.
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