Younger people feel that Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1943 Oklahoma! which was revolutionary in its own time, creating what we now call “the integrated book musical,” has gone stale and sentimental. Along comes avant-garde director Daniel Fish and shows us how to make it modern once again with a contemporary feel. Seen first at Bard Summerscape in 2015 and St. Ann’s Warehouse during the fall of 2018 it has now arrived at Broadway’s Circle in the Square recreating the experience from St. Ann’s. This is not only a fascinating deconstruction of the original musical but also a brilliant reinvention. And if you think it is not for you, just try fighting its charms while you are in the theater. The raw, emotional performances and the clever production are visceral and earthy – like the original storyline.
Like John Doyle’s reconceived musical revivals (Allegro, Passion, Pacific Overtures, Carmen Jones, The Cradle Will Rock), Fish’s production is minimalist but with a difference. While Doyle strips away the trappings both of sets and costumes and offers nothing in their place, Fish has turned his Oklahoma! into environmental and communal theater. When the audience enters the Circle in the Square, they are confronted with set designer Laura Jellinek’s giant dance hall with long tables around the perimeter with red crock pots on the center of each. The plywood walls of the theater are covered with rifles, the kind used by real cowboys on the range. The bluegrass band is located in a pit off center, at one end of the circular stage. Some lucky audience members sit at the first row of tables with a ringside view. Scott Zielinski’s lighting is kept on for most of the show so not only does every member of the audience see every other one but it is as though we are part of the show, not just audience members. This communal feeling is continued during the intermission when the audience is invited onto the stage to taste corn bread (that we watched Aunt Eller and Laurey preparing in the opening scene) and chili.
Although Fish has reduced the cast to a mere 12 from the original 56, the plot taken from Lynn Riggs’ play Green Grow the Lilacs in Oscar Hammerstein II’s book remains the same, although at least one of the songs has been reassigned to Aunt Eller as there is no longer a female ensemble. Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones) who runs her Aunt Eller Murphy’s (Mary Testa) farm with the help of the hired hand Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) has agreed to go with him to the box social just to spite the arrogant cowboy Curly McLain (Damon Daunno) with whom she has been having an on again-off again relationship. However, she is actually afraid of Jud and is proved right before the evening is over. Curly who has hired a surrey with the fringe on top as Laurey wanted invites Aunt Eller to go with him instead. Having bought an elixir from the traveling peddler that will help her make up her mind, Laurey falls asleep and has a troubling dream.
The secondary plot concerns another triangle: local flirt Ado Annie (Ali Stroker) has been seeing peddler Ali Hakim (Will Brill) while her boyfriend Will Parker (James Davis) has been away in Kansas City. He returns in time for the box social and wants to know her intentions. However, he has spent the $50 he had won at the fair so that he can’t marry Ado Annie according to her father Andrew Carnes’ (Mitch Tebo) agreement with him. As a result Ado Annie tricks Ali Hakim into getting engaged to her which causes a good deal of resentment between the men.
In the second act, at the box social, along with square dances and auctioning off the women’s lunch hampers, fighting breaks out between the farmers and the cowboys showing the deeply divided community of this new state of the Oklahoma territory. This new version which has remained faithful to the original with the exception of the male and female dancing and singing choruses has a new and controversial but silent ending which probably made it acceptable to the R&H estates. It is most likely more believable for modern audiences, but will upset purists.
Among Fish’s inventive changes are Curly’s singing to his own guitar, the two Jud Fry scenes performed in total darkness which makes him even scarier, and two moonlight scenes that are performed in atmospheric green lighting. Choreographer John Heginbotham’s dream ballet which no longer tells a story as did Agnes de Mille’s 1943 original is still performed solo by dancer Gabrielle Hamilton wearing a long t-shirt which says “Dream Baby Dream” but the line of other women who danced across the stage at St. Ann’s has been wisely eliminated. The reorchestration of Richard Rodgers’ melodic song settings by Daniel Kluger for the bluegrass band of seven is remarkably astute and the country-western sound is terrific even in these reduced settings. Curly occasionally accompanies the band with his guitar on a mike as though he were performing in a saloon or dance hall which is perfectly appropriate.
The cast which is entirely the same as the production at St. Ann’s with the one exception of Will Brill now playing Ali Hakim seems to be more comfortable with their roles and emotions than before. As Laurey and Curly, respectively, Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno have such smoldering chemistry that it adds a sexual vibe usually not felt in this 1943 show. Jones’ Laurey is a feisty young woman who knows what she doesn’t want, but not what she does and is able to stand up to the cowboys and farmers around her. Daunno makes Curly a swaggering showoff who does know what he wants even if he goes after it the wrong way. Veteran actress Mary Testa makes Aunt Eller a sort of acerbic den mother for these high-spirited youthful characters still sowing their wild oats under her wary, jaundiced eye.
Even moored to her wheelchair, vivacious Ali Stroker is a bundle of energy as Ado Annie with the roving eye and the loose morals. James Davis makes her boyfriend Will Parker the dim bulb that he is but with tremendous verve as he deals with situations beyond his ken. New to the production, Will Brill’s Persian peddler Ali Hakim is witty and sardonic, getting laughs from the audience on remarks that go over the characters’ heads. As loner Jud Fry, Patrick Vaill adds a whiff of sensitivity to a sinister and malevolent personality. Mitch Tebo as Ado Annie’s father brings more than a touch of gruffness to a man who has put up with a good deal from his slippery daughter. As Gertie Cummings on the prowl for a husband, Mallory Portnoy’s high-pitched cackle ought to be enough to scare away most men.
In this production, the score with lyrics by Hammerstein does not have a single weak link, and with the reduced orchestrations, the words and melody are able to come to the fore. Daunno accompanies himself on the guitar as he sings “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” and is eventually joined by a chorus of voices in a new touch. His “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” is most seductive. Davis’ rendition of “(Everything’s Up to Date in) Kansas City” has both comedy and verve. Stroker milks “I Cain’t Say No” for laughs and gets every one of them.
Jones’ beautiful soprano wraps itself around “Many a New Day” and “Out of My Dreams,” both songs of longing. Daunno and Jones’ voices blend lushly in their two versions of “People Will Say We’re in Love.” Vaill demonstrates a fine singing voice with his back-to-back numbers, “Poor Jud,” and “Lonely Room.” Davis and Stoker’s forceful duet, “All er Nuthin,” gets a good many chuckles when it is revealed what they will be in for when they are wed. The ensemble makes rousing work of the square dance, “The Cowboy and the Farmer” and the title song which ends the show.
While Broadway revivals at one time were rather staid reproductions of the original versions that were getting stale and tired, Daniel Fish’s production of Oklahoma! brings new life to an old warhorse that had been relegated to the scrap heap for its sentimentality. In his hands, it seems he has made a brand new show out of the original script and score. With Terese Wadden’s western costumes in which a great many people would be right at home today, the show seems like a new take on today rather than an old one on yesterday.
Oklahoma! (extended through January 19, 2020)
The Bard Summerscape Production
Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway at 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.oklahomabroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 55 minutes with one intermission