REVIEW: Reinterpreted for today, “Oklahoma!” on Broadway is a must-see
“Country a-changin’, got to change with it!” advises cowboy Curly McLain to his sweetheart Laurey Williams late in act two of “Oklahoma!”
That’s good advice for society, and for the theatre, too.
A triumphant new production of “Oklahoma!”—Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved, groundbreaking 1943 classic—opened on Sunday at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway, marking the arrival of a musical revival as bold, fresh, and revelatory as any I’ve ever been privileged to see.
While that’s certainly true, on second viewing, the key revelation of this production is not just its deft deconstruction of a canonical and totemic masterpiece of American musical theatre, but its adroit unearthing of the subtext that has always lurked beneath the surface of Oscar Hammerstein II’s brilliant book.
If the years since its debut have seen this once record-breaking show—the “Hamilton” of its time—mostly slipping into a hackneyed and rote obsolescence, director Daniel Fish takes to heart Curly’s call to change, reinterpreting “Oklahoma!” for the 21st century by stripping it of its figurative corn (the literal corn, thankfully, remains) and highlighting the darker themes of violence and injustice simmering just beneath the sunny melodies and gleeful optimism of its characters.
Without changing a word, Mr. Fish takes a text-first approach to “Oklahoma!”, treating the material as if it were a play being performed for the first time, and in the process blasting away 76 years of preconception to produce a sexually charged and strikingly naturalistic portrait of “territory folk” and their milieu.
That is not easy to do. Musical allusions to “Oklahoma!” recently popped up in “Indecent” and “Pass Over” to contrast blind American optimism with the genocide of the Holocaust and the scourge of racism; those moments worked because the music of “Oklahoma!” is so hardwired in the brains of audiences to summon a joyful sense of possibility that not much else needs to be said. Breaking that cycle, therefore, takes great skill and vision.
Mr. Fish, his cast, and team of collaborators piercingly bridge the gaps between the Oklahoma Territory in 1906, Broadway in 1943, and America in 2019 to deliver a visceral, unsettling, and transformative theatrical experience that reveals the hollow promise and horrifying truth behind the American penchant for proclaiming our greatness, refusing to reconcile our past, and fearlessly smiling at the future.
“Oklahoma!” is hardly a musical that needs any “fixing”, but a testament to its greatness is the fact that it can and regularly does withstand and support varied reimaginings—from Arena Stage’s wonderful, multi-cultural take in 2010, to Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s same-sex version last spring, and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company’s all-black production last fall.
Pushing further than those productions, both aesthetically and substantively, Mr. Fish dares to interrogate deeper than perhaps any director before him, in service to the story and a contemporary method of staging that abandons the primacy of literalism in favor of emotional and metaphorical resonance. The resulting effect invigorates a 76 year-old musical with an energy and vibrancy that makes it feel brand new.
Stephen Sondheim once explained the plot of “Oklahoma!” as being about which guy is going to take the girl to the party. He’s not entirely wrong.
There’s not much action to the story—itself an adaption of the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” (1930) by gay cowboy Lynn Riggs—beyond that simple and quaint central question of whether charming cowboy Curly McLain (Damon Daunno) or menacing farmhand Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) will take the demure Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones) to the box social dance and, ultimately, win her affection and hand in marriage.
The secondary, so-called “comedic” relationship triangle concerns Ado Annie Carnes (Ali Stroker), the “girl who cain’t say no”, whose undying love flips between Persian salesman Ali Hakam (Will Brill)—at the barrel of Annie’s father’s gun—and her longtime beau, the haplessly dim cowboy Will Parker (James Davis), seemingly based on little more than who has $50 and is presently in her company.
Overseeing these events is Laurey’s stern but loving Aunt Eller (Mary Testa), and a larger universe of “territory folk”, reduced in this production to just four ensemble members.
At the Circle in the Square, Broadway’s only theatre in the round, rows of seats face each other across a runway stage floored in plywood and lined with tables, each bearing a crockpot (for chili served at intermission), and a few chairs (set by Laura Jellinek). Matching plywood walls circle the space, speckled with the specter of fully loaded gunracks, and multicolored mylar garlands stretch atop and across the stage, shimmering and shifting with the air—the fringe on top.
A seven piece bluegrass band is perched at one end of the stage, performing Richard Rodgers’ terrific score with a newly infused country twang by orchestrator and arranger Daniel Kluger. While the iconic overture is cut, and the dream ballet gets a modern grunge-like reinvention, the songs remain a joy to hear and rediscover in this new idiom, as are our well-known characters, each given a new spin.
The disengaged and quiet indifference of Ms. Jones’ Laurey to the calls of her suitors give her position more depth. Has anyone ever wondered before if Laurey Williams might not actually want to marry Curly or Jud, or any man? Might she want something more? Education? A career? Despite the rolling bounty of the plains, she is interminably trapped in a construct she cannot escape.
Mr. Daunno’s guitar-toting Curly is no angel. He’s slick, smoldering, and sexy—and ultimately a killer whose crime is forgiven in no small measure because of the affection he’s won from his neighbors. “Pore Jud is Dead”, a song in which Curly taunts Jud, is now performed in the dark, with a camera closeup on Jud’s reaction that underscores Curly’s psychopathic bullying.
As portrayed by Mr. Vaill in a searing performance, Jud is no simpleton pawing after Laurey, but rather a quiet, intense, and antisocial man who is a victim of his community’s dislike as much as he is a villain. This Jud calls to mind the school-shooter type with whom we have become all too familiar. He roamed the plains in 1906, and he stalks the Internet in 2019, awash in his toxic entitlement to female affection and sexual company, yes, but also failed by his community and society. Mr. Vaill is chilling, and extraordinary.
Far from a harmless old lady churning butter, Ms. Testa’s Aunt Eller is firm and dry—clearly the leader of this community—both hilarious but also an aggressive manipulator when she needs to be. It’s a career-high performance capping a career of highs.
The breakout, though, remains Ms. Stroker, whom you may recall from Deaf West’s “Spring Awakening” in 2015. Using a wheelchair due to a childhood spinal cord injury, her Dolly Parton-inspired Ado Annie captivates each scene she’s in with a raw horniness that ups the ante on Hammerstein’s famously witty lyrics. And the fact of her wheelchair use upends tired audience preconceptions of the power and agency wielded by people with special needs. She is a revelation
All told, Mr. Fish could not have assembled a finer ensemble with which to reinterpret this classic. Each shines in moments big and small, and collectively speak with the same voice, however disparate their characters. It’s good casting, good direction, and good craft.
If there is a weak spot in this “Oklahoma!”, it is the newly reimagined dream ballet by choreographer John Heginbotham, which now opens act two instead of closing act one. Agnes de Mille’s original ballet marked the first time in a musical that dance was used in longform to reveal the interior thoughts of its characters. To Mr. Heginbotham’s credit, his new dream ballet featuring soloist Gabrielle Hamilton is the first dream ballet I have ever seen that actually feels like a dream—twisted logic, frightening imagery, and all.
I loved it at St. Ann’s Warehouse, but must admit it does not hold up upon a second viewing, despite revisions made since. A new video element heightens the emotion of the piece, and the appearance of Ms. Jones and Mr. Vaill help to literalize the action, which has lost some of its dramatic thrust and is just too long. These criticisms aside, the ballet in this production is where it dares greatest—just like it did in 1943—pushing audiences to feel and experience the storytelling in a new way.
If there has ever been a weak spot in “Oklahoma!” itself, it is the final scene at Curly and Laurey’s wedding in which the shunned Jud arrives and is killed in a skirmish by Curly who is then exonerated in a hastily arranged sham trial. The characters typically go from witnessing a homicide to singing a reprise of the happy title song in just a few minutes of dialogue that Hammerstein whittled to three pages from the original 30 in Riggs’ play.
This time, though, that clumsy denouement is stretched out. [Spoiler Alert] Jud does not arrive drunk and threatening, but rather defeated and forlorn. He gifts Curly a gun (presumably the one Curly sells earlier in the act) instead of a knife, which Curly uses to shoot Jud in cold blood and at the slightest provocation, leaving the character—and the audience—stunned.
The “trial” that follows is a joke, yes, but not one that elicits laughs as Ms. Testa’s Aunt Eller uses her power within the community to silence dissent and bully Judge Andrew Carnes (Mitch Tebo) into conducting the proceeding right away, despite the chilling admonition of bystander Cord Elam (Anthony Cason): “Feel funny about it.” There is no mistaking, we should all feel funny about it.
The final image of the musical is not the gleeful happy ending of a land on the verge of becoming a state, but the painful, blood-soaked reality of the white male privilege, toxic masculinity, injustice, and violence that hounds America’s history and present.
This triumph of a production is full of heroes, chief among them director Daniel Fish who had the vision, Ted Chapin—guardian of the Rodgers and Hammerstein legacy—who said “yes”, and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein themselves, who crafted a groundbreaking show in 1943 that continues to break ground in 2019.
Next season, experimental Belgian director Ivo van Hove will offer a new production of “West Side Story”—the first major production divorced from Jerome Robbins’ original vision and choreography. Upon the announcement, Stephen Sondheim remarked: “[w]hat keeps theater alive over time is reinterpretation.”
This production of “Oklahoma!” calls to the fore the very question of what it means to revive a musical. Is it to resurrect a replica of a beloved original, return to and elevate that original, or else wholly reinterpret that original for a modern audience, as Mr. Sondheim suggests?
While the first approach leaves me cold (see: “A Chorus Line”), the second can be thrilling (see: “Hello, Dolly!”), and the third, on full display here, can be downright exhilarating.
To claim a definitive version of “Oklahoma!” is as foolish an errand as doing so for a Shakespeare play. This “Oklahoma!” will not be everyone’s bowl of chili, but it stands as an important event in the history of this great property, and one you should not miss.
Bottom Line: Fresh from an acclaimed Off-Broadway run, director Daniel Fish’s reinterpretation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s groundbreaking 1943 musical “Oklahoma!” completely deconstructs this canonical and totemic masterpiece of American musical theatre by stripping it of its corn and highlighting the darker themes of violence and injustice that have always been simmering underneath. Sexually charged and presented with a striking naturalism, this bold new production is a revelation and a must-see.
Circle in the Square Theatre
1633 Broadway (at 50th Street)
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: April 7, 2019
Final Performance: September 1, 2019