Can "Oklahoma!," the Rodgers and Hammerstein masterwork that in 1943 ushered in the age of the book musical and set the template for decades of sweeping, melodic escapism, really be a vehicle for a deep examination of America's founding and ideals?
Celebrated director Daniel Fish certainly thinks so.
His stripped-down, Tony-winning production of "Oklahoma!," which kicks off its national tour Tuesday at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, cracks open the chestnut to highlight both the sturdiness of its story and the darker themes that had become submerged over the decades.
Those resurfaced ideas include a denialism of true history, the power of mob justice and a troubling devotion to a narrative — a love story in this case — that has to be maintained at all costs, even on pain of death.
"One of the things that's at the core of the show is that a community needs to create an outsider to define itself in order to survive," Fish said. "And they're willing to go to great lengths, potentially violent lengths, to do that.
"The idea in this work is that this couple has to come together, and that supersedes justice. Out of that couple is born a state, a country, all arguably on a crime — a murder. That's a pretty American story."
Fish said his vision emerged from a deep "listening" to the musical.
He first saw a production of "Oklahoma!" on Broadway when he was 10. Decades later, in 2007, legendary theater director JoAnne Akalaitis, a professor in the theater department at Bard College, invited him to do a work with her students.
He immediately thought about "Oklahoma!" But he did not set out initially to reinvent the show.
"That's not how I think about stuff I'm working on," Fish said. "Everything happens in the present moment. There's a false dichotomy between something that's old and maybe needs to be reinvented and something that's new. It's all new to me, and happening now."
Tell that to those for whom "Oklahoma!" is a throwback to bygone, simpler eras.
Adapted from Lynn Riggs' 1931 play "Green Grow the Lilacs," the musical revolves around a love triangle involving cowboy Curly McClain, farm girl Laurey Williams and disturbed farmhand Jud Fry.
Obsessed with Laurey, Jud asks her to a dance. But the competition with Curly turns fatal.
Jud often is played as a menace and a villain. Fish doesn't entirely see it that way.
"We tried to create a certain amount of sympathy for that character and a level of complexity, as we did with all of them," Fish said. "They're all villains."
The original orchestrations for a big, 28-member orchestra were replaced by Daniel Kluger's arrangements for a seven-piece band. The musicians play onstage with a similarly shrunken cast that represents a mosaic of America, including actors of different races, genders and abilities.
In Fish's original conception, the revival would take place in an intimate space with chili served to the audience afterwards. That's a no-no, not just because of COVID-19, but because the theaters on this tour are much bigger.
Fish acknowledges that "there are people who may go: 'Well, the show is all about the intimacy.' ... I don't believe that intimacy requires physical proximity. Anyone who has seen a great stadium concert knows that you can be among 80,000 people and still feel connected to the performer onstage. Conversely, you can be in a 200-seat room and feel a mile away."
Importantly, Fish shucks the idea of make-believe.
"You can leave your pretend cap at the door — everybody who's in it brings who they are to the material. One of the things that's interesting is the kind of tension between what we might call the role and the actors. They might not be the perfect fit in a conventional way, whether that has to do with gender or body type or race or the quality of their voice or the style of their singing.
"All I can do is make the work with the people I trust in the room and do it as deeply and as honestly as I can."
Who: By Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Daniel Fish.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 8 p.m. Fri., 2 & 8 p.m. Sat., 1 & 6:30 p.m. Sun.
Where: Orpheum Theater, 910 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $40-$139. 1-800-982-2787 or hennepintheatretrust.org.
Protocol: COVID-19 vaccine or negative test. Masks required.