Oh what a beautiful mornin’ to see ‘Oklahoma!’ at Kennedy Center

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Oklahoma' at Kennedy Center (Part 1)

It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943 as the first musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

It later became a 1955 movie and won the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival in 2019.

Now, “Oklahoma!” comes to the Kennedy Center in D.C. from Tuesday through Sunday.

“The story is set in 1907 when Oklahoma is on the verge of becoming a state,” Actress Sasha Hutchings told WTOP. “You have a small, tight-knit community getting ready for a box social, a fundraiser to raise funds for a school house, women are making lunches, men are bidding on them … Love, ambition and a community fighting to find their way.”

Hutchings plays the beloved lead role of farm girl Laurey Williams, who is courted by two rival suitors, the Mr. Right cowboy Curly McLain and the bad-boy farmhand Jud Fry.

“Traditionally, Jud is the villain, the anti-hero, and Curly is the one Laurey is destined for, but in this production, we challenge that,” Hutchings said. “Jud is a very real and present option for Laurey, someone that interests her, even if it’s in an odd and dangerous way. Curly frustrates Laurey and there are missed connections a lot between both of them.”

A secondary romance follows cowboy Will Parker and his flirtatious fiancee, Ado Annie.

“Ali Hakim, the peddler, has come through town and messed up Will’s plans to marry Ado Annie,” Hutchings said. “(She) doesn’t understand why she has to make a choice and say ‘yes’ to one and ‘no’ to the other. Laurey is thinking carefully through her options … but Ado Annie blows that out of the water, saying, ‘I’m gonna do what’s right in front of me.'”

Of course, the biggest character is the setting of Oklahoma itself.

“You’re not going to recognize the visuals as something you’d think you would see in 1907,” Hutchings said. “The stage is very clear, there’s picnic tables, there’s corn and a crock pot. We’re all in jeans and plaid, flannel, western shirts. There are a lot of chaps and cowboy boots, but it feels more like you are visiting a place in the Midwest today.”

You’ll sing along to the Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook, including the title song.

“You get to spell, which since grade school, any song that helps me spell is kind of a fun game,” Hutchings said. “It’s the state song of Oklahoma, it is the title song, it starts with a big ramp up. We sing the song twice, the reason being is that the first time they presented the show, the song would get the audience so worked up … that they added an encore.”

You’ll also hear the standard ballad “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’.”

“Right off the top of the show, Curly starts out with his guitar,” Hutchings said. “He sings the song on his guitar and the bluegrass band slowly folds into his singing, so you have something that is built very organically instead of a very lush orchestration from the beginning. We’re all stepping in to take our time with this early morning ritual.”

It kicks off tons of beloved tunes, including “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top.”

“So many of those midcentury musical songs were basically standards,” Hutchings said. “You can find different covers of ‘People Will Say We’re In Love.’ … One of my favorites is ‘Jud Fry is Dead,’ which is a very dark song. There’s a lot of comedy in the song … but this song challenges how sinister the song is, how dark, deep-rooted … and bullying.”

Behind it all is a live seven-piece band on stage.

“It’s a very bluegrass, folk-band sound, there’s a mandolin, banjo, accordion, things you might not hear or even have in a full orchestra to be honest,” Hutchings said. “We have our violin, cello and upright bass, but also have other things, we have electric guitar. There’s lots of orchestrations that bring these songs to life in a way you haven’t heard before.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Oklahoma' at Kennedy Center (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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