Oklahoma!, the 1943 debut of composing/writing duo Rodgers and Hammerstein, is an example of both corn-fed, star-spangled Americana and the golden age of Broadway musicals. It’s the kind of beloved classic that, like apple pie itself, most don’t bother fiddling with. But the latest production, which opened on Broadway in April after a sold-out run at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, removes Oklahoma!’s candy coating to reveal a story stunningly relevant to America today. It’s apple pie, gone woke.
This Oklahoma!, directed by Daniel Fish, manages to reimagine the musical without a single change to the script. Its modern edge is achieved through the staging and, primarily, the sets created by award-winning designer Laura Jellinek. The play unfolds in what feels like a post-modern rodeo—the audience seated stadium-style in a stark plywood box, eerily unadorned save for yards of mylar fringe overhead, an abstracted mural of farmland, and racks of rifles along the walls. In conceptualizing the set, Jellinek researched chili cook-offs, barn socials, gun shows, and other small-town American gathering places. The result is worlds away from the pastoral idyll of traditional Oklahoma! stagings, yet feels true to the plot.
“I’d never actually seen it,” Jellinek admits. “It’s not like I had to challenge many preconceived notions of what it should be. We’re not trying to do a different show—we’re just trying to do Oklahoma! in a way that feels meaningful to us.”
For Jellinek, that usually means paring a set down to its most essential elements: “I’m a set designer who sort of hates scenery. It needs to enhance the story… otherwise, just get rid of it.” Which, in many ways, is what makes this production so impactful—stripping away the fluff to get at Oklahoma!’s darker, disquieting core. The house lights remain on for most of the show, leaving no place to hide. There are weapons in sight from every vantage point. The stage is virtually empty except for plywood tables along the perimeter, dotted with blood-red Crock-Pots filled with chili (which the audience is invited to partake of during intermission).
Jellinek traces her exacting eye to her undergraduate study of mathematics. “When you do proofs in math, the point is to get rid of anything extraneous. You want it to be as short and clear as possible. I feel like there’s a rigor to how I approach design that’s connected to that in a way that, hopefully, lands on something beautiful.” It’s a method she’s applied to sleek, evocative effect in everything from old-world operas to contemporary plays. Oklahoma!, however, was her first time working on a great American musical.
Next, she’s jumping from frontiersmen on the plains to conservative college kids in Wyoming for Heroes of the Fourth Turning, opening at Playwrights Horizons this fall. “Right now, I’m in the research phase, and I’ve done a deep dive—probably too deep—into the Facebook page of this tiny Catholic college in Wyoming. It’s all very foreign to me and so interesting. It’s just so crazy that that’s part of my job.”