Christopher Bannow has just arrived in Los Angeles from the last stop in San Francisco for a five week run at the Ahmanson Theatre of the much anticipated, Daniel Fish directed, newly re-imagined “Oklahoma!” – fresh off its Tony-winning run on Broadway (with a pandemic in between). Unlike many shows that were shut down in March 2020, the “Oklahoma!” tour had not begun so feelers began to go out last summer for potential cast members and Bannow was offered the role of Jud. He had understudied all the male lead roles on Broadway in 2019 with Jud being his personal favorite. Rehearsals began in October of 2021 and travelling throughout the country since then and winding their way to Los Angeles “has been a journey”, he says.
Bannow hails from New Haven, Connecticut, the home of Yale University, a school that wasn’t ever in his plan. But after studying theatre at Boston University and living in New York City for a stint, he ended up going back “home” to get his masters degree from the Yale School of Drama. He grew up surrounded by the arts with a father who was a drummer and mother who was an actor. “I saw what a life in the arts really is – I knew from the beginning what the realities were and also how much fun it was on a cellular level because I kind of grew up backstage.” Bannow says he loved his time at Yale and since graduating he considers himself very lucky to have worked on Broadway, the West End in London, as well as off-Broadway and in all kinds of commercial and experimental theatre.
This production of “Oklahoma!” is actually Bannow’s first professional musical. While he’s always been musical and enjoyed singing as well as playing instruments and being in bands – he always kept his music separate from theatre. When the opportunity came for him to audition to understudy the male roles in the 2019 Broadway production, Bannow’s first thought was that he didn’t have that particular talent for that kind of singing. But they assured him that he was right for it because this was a non-traditional interpretation of “Oklahoma!” and that he was exactly what they were looking for. “It’s been a wonderful way for me to dip my toes into doing musicals and feeling more and more comfortable and confident singing on stage,” he explains. He also previously thought you either “have it or you don’t” but in working with a vocal coach, he’s realizing how valuable training your voice is and how much you can actually grow your voice saying, “it’s work. I really took that time during the rehearsal process and audition process to study, doing daily vocal warm-ups and learning what my vocal instrument was capable of. This show has really given me an opportunity to feel confident in my vocal abilities.”
Bannow was the swing understudy for all the male roles in the show, eventually going on for each of them. He says that gave him a unique experience of seeing the show from each of their different perspectives. “I saw how wonderful, structurally, the show is. Doing it night after night, it really doesn’t get old. It’s so well written – Rodgers and Hammerstein – it’s so precise and I really got to learn all the different dynamics and the way the love triangles work verses the comedic relief subplots and how they weave in and out of each other. And I just got to watch really great actors work night after night and learn by watching them. It was a great way in to the play,”
Like most actors, Bannow didn’t work for a year and a half during the pandemic and says “it was a huge opportunity to be with my family – my wife and now five-year-old son – it was a chance to pursue other hobbies and interests. We bought a property in upstate New York and fixed it up ourselves and more or less flipped it, so we gave ourselves fully to homemaking, carpentry and woodworking and had an amazing time doing that.” Bannow’s wife is from New Zealand and so they had the rare opportunity, that I think many of us wished we could do at the time, to actually “escape” the pandemic and go live in New Zealand for several months at a time when Covid had not touched the island country and life was basically normal! “We were there January to May, 2021, and there were no masks, there were no restrictions. It felt like going back in time to 2019 – it felt like a different planet in a way. It was surreal.”
In late spring of 2021, Bannow was contacted about the “Oklahoma!” tour and offered the role of Jud. “After not working all that time, and then being offered a lead role, I was really grateful. I believe in the show, I believe in this production, I believe in this director (Daniel Fish) and I felt really honored that this was kind of my way back into working and being an actor after Covid – to get to tell the story and play this role – and to do it in and throughout the country – it’s been an amazing opportunity to check in with many different parts of this country and see how they’re recovering post-Covid, how they’re dealing with the issues of today both politically and personally and how they react to this show in 2022.”
Jud, the misunderstood outsider farmhand, was the role Bannow had identified with the most personally telling us, “as an actor/storyteller, I’m always drawn to the anti-hero or to the unconventional outsider and in this production especially, Jud is the outsider in this community. And what our director, Daniel, has done with the role in this production excites me. I never get tired of doing it. It’s funny, but I don’t think Daniel and I have ever had a conversation about the inner workings of him, which in a way I kind of enjoy – that it’s this unspoken thing that I feel like I understand where he’s driving it towards and he trusts me that I have it inside of me.” Bannow says that Fish has boiled this production down to a story about a community coming together and in doing so, deciding who belongs and who doesn’t. “So, a community coming together by placing someone on the outside of it – and that idea of in America and many parts of the world, this is how we create identity is by deciding who we are and therefore who is not a part of our identity.” The character of Jud is usually seen as the “villain” of the story and a lesser person than the romantic leads in the show and Bannow says with this production, “we’re asking audiences to question why that has been the assumption for so long and why is it okay to push this person towards the fringes of society? Perhaps looking at him in a more sympathetic light.”
This production has been described as a sexy, thought-provoking and daring re-interpretation of the beloved classic for the 21st century – an “Oklahoma!” as you’ve never seen or heard it before. The orchestra is pared down to a 7-piece bluegrass band, the cast is pared down to a dozen actors who mostly stay on stage on a set that resembles a homespun community barn dance. The costumes are contemporary and the cast is diverse. Almost nothing has been changed in terms of the original dialogue and music. The changes all come from the way in which it is presented.
“Every lyric we sing, every musical note that we hit is there because Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote it in 1943”, says Bannow. “While the score and songs are the same, it has been transposed for the bluegrass band, so it’s very stripped down – and the instruments include electric guitar, mandolins, pedal steel guitar, accordion, violin, cello and bass. So you have this sonic landscape that sheds new light on parts of the score that perhaps aren’t as readily accessible when you listen to a full orchestra.”
As for the interpretation Bannow says “we have bodies on stage that aren’t normally allowed to tell this classic American story and simply by having the vessels and identities on stage be more reflective of what America looks like today, I think that sheds new light on the text. It’s interesting – people will come up to me after the show and say, “I don’t remember this being in the musical” and I tell them to watch the movie. It’s all there. All of this dialogue, this male dominance, this violence, the need to possess and control women – it’s all in the musical that people know and love, it’s just that they’re smiling and winking when they say these things. In our production there’s just perhaps a little less wink, wink, nudge, nudge and a bit more well what if we actually took what these people say to be true and they meant what they said. And the tone changes and there is immediately a threat of anything could happen at any point because all’s fair in love and war.”
Bannow reflects on the first time he saw this production on Broadway and says it’s the first time he’s ever seen an ending of a musical where it’s not sort of a celebratory moment of the cast thanking the audience for coming. “A finale is usually a big send-off, a thank you so much for coming – that’s the energy of it. I won’t say what the ending is, but I will say that it’s very different. No less engaging of the audience, it may be even more so, but it’s not a traditional musical ending. And that, off the bat, really draws me to this production and makes me feel it’s important because no one else is doing it.”
As for playing Jud, Bannow says, “I don’t think I will ever tire of playing a role where I know that people come in with certain expectations and predetermined ideas of who this person is and what they stand for – and I love going through the journey and feeling the audience, bit by bit, start to question and reconsider who they think Jud is and what his role is in this musical. When the audience is present and you’re all listening to each other, it’s palpable, and you can feel an audience shift their position in relation to the story that’s being told. It’s like nothing else when you feel that collective click.”
Bannow hopes this production invigorates people to engage more wholly with American art and understand that it is malleable and it is available to us today to think about who we are in 2022. “I hope it engages people to fully embrace what it means to be American today,” he reflects, “It’s a classic American musical and sometimes traveling through the country it feels like when we’re singing the title song “Oklahoma” it’s like we could be singing “America” – it has that kind of same whole attachment and the identity of what this show is about. It’s about a territory joining the union, it’s about a place becoming a state in the United States so what we’re trying to do is tell audiences, “hey, we can love who we are but we have to embrace all of who we are in order to truly love ourselves and begin to see ourselves with more clarity. I hope as audiences walk away they can use this musical as a stepping stone to more fully embrace what the American identity is today.”
“OKLAHOMA!” runs through October 16 at the Ahmanson Theatre. Tickets are currently on sale and start at $35. They are available through CenterTheatreGroup.org, Audience Services at (213) 972-4400 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Offices (at the Ahmanson Theatre) at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012. Performances run Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.