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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 7, 2019

Oklahoma! Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs. Original choreography by Agnes de Mille. Directed by Daniel Fish. Scenic design by Laura Jellinek. Costume design by Terese Wadden. Lighting design by Scott Zielinski. Sound design by Drew Levy. Projection design by Joshua Thorson. Special effects by Jeremy Chernick. Musical direction and additional vocal arrangements by Nathan Kogi. Orchestrations, arrangements, and music supervision by Daniel Kluger. Choreography by John Heginbotham. Cast: Damon Daunno, Mary Testa, Rebecca Naomi Jones, James Davis, Anthony Cason, Patrick Vaill, Ali Stroker, Will Brill, Mallory Portnoy, Mitch Tebo, Will Mann, and Gabrielle Hamilton.
Theatre: Circle In The Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway/235 West 50th Street between Broadway & 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno
Photo by Little Fang Photo

Once you have seen director Daniel Fish's fearlessly thrilling production of Oklahoma!, opening tonight at the Circle in the Square, I guarantee you'll never think of the old Rodgers and Hammerstein warhorse in the same way again. It's creative, imaginative, and, yes, more than a little perplexing at times. But it is also an electrifying interpretation that illuminates the familiar score while venturing into the heart of darkness of the farmers, cowboys, hired hands, and traveling peddlers who live in Oklahoma Territory at the turn of the twentieth century.

The bright golden haze has dissipated, and the sun that pours down via Scott Zielinski's piercing lighting design shines on a generally optimistic community, though one that has its share of distinctly sharp edges and corners. The recurring motif of the production can be stated succinctly by quoting a line from "The Farmer and the Cowman," one of the show's livelier numbers. That bit of lyric goes, "Territory folks should stick together."

This theme of sticking together is introduced at the very beginning, when the iconic solo, "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning," is interrupted by the entire company repeating the opening line before Curly (Damon Daunno, charming and confident) continues on his own. What is conveyed in the moment is the idea of community harmony, a nice touch.

But as the show progresses, the notion of sticking together becomes less of a "should" and more of an imperative. During the "The Farmer and the Cowman" hoedown, for instance, the idea is addressed when a fight breaks out and Aunt Eller (a stalwart Mary Testa) fires a gun to get everyone to settle down. It's treated as a joke; the moment passes, and the music immediately resumes. Later, however, in the production's startling final minutes, the expectation encompasses far more disconcerting ideas, about prairie justice and silent consent and complicity. In this way, the musical's ultimate outsider, the farmhand Jud (Patrick Vaill) is handily dispensed with, the wall of absolute community loyalty surrounds Curly, and life is able to quickly pick up as if nothing untoward had happened.

I don't want to overstate the icy chill that is implied by all this, but it is the focal point of Daniel Fish's reconceptualization. There is no doubt that Jud, well played by Mr. Vaill, is a social misfit and outcast with a potentially violent side. He does pose a real threat to the scrappy but unnerved Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones), whom he obsesses over. But you can't help considering, with at least some sense of pity, about the question of cause and effect when Curly idly asks him, "how'd you git to be the way your air, anyway, settin' here in this filthy hole and thinkin' the way you're thinkin'."

The Cast
Photo by Little Fang Photo

Let me hasten to add that this Oklahoma! is not exclusively a psycho-social treatise on the dark underbelly of a community. If the bright lighting reveals these ugly little secrets, it also shows us the characters' everyday lives, their fun, their joy, their romancing, and the singing and dancing that are also present in great abundance. All of the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs are there, though many of them now are infused with a country and western flair, thanks to new orchestrations and arrangements by Daniel Kluger.

Where the original score calls for 28 musicians, this production has winnowed it down to 7. They sit in a hollowed-out space on the stage's plywood flooring and play up a storm to accompany some down-home singing that fits nicely with the country sound of many of the reworked numbers. Rebecca Naomi Jones hasn't quite mastered that western twang, but Damon Daunno's singing, including a bit of country yodeling, is ideally suited for his take on the disarmingly self-assured cowboy, Curly. Mary Testa's Aunt Eller is a tough old bird who insists on keeping things on an even keel at whatever the cost. As the comic couple Will Parker and Ado Annie, you couldn't find a better pair than James Davis and Ali Stroker, who whips around in a wheelchair like it's an actual bronco. There actually is a great deal of fun and laughter, all of which is greatly enhanced by the close proximity of the cast to the audience. Indeed, if you are sitting at one of the long tables on the stage itself, you may find yourself being invited to participate or flirted with. There's even a treat of chili and cornbread during intermission if you've a mind to partake (the lines move quickly).

On the other hand, there is no denying that the soaked-in-blood ending will confuse and disturb many. It does move us out of the realm of naturalism into a place of hyper-realism. Yet it does fit with, even strongly proclaims, the production's overall theme. There is, however, one completely outré element, and that is the dream ballet that opens Act II. Anyone familiar with Oklahoma! will recall Agnes de Mille's choreography for the dance sequence that was designed to symbolically represent Laurey's sexual longing and her emotional turmoil regarding Jud and Curly. Here, as choreographed by John Heginbotham and bravely danced by Gabrielle Hamilton (wearing a nightie emblazoned with the words "Dream Baby Dream"), the ballet bears not the slightest resemblance to the original. It's more of a hallucination than a dream, and more of a gymnastics routine than a dance. For accompaniment, Richard Rodgers' music has been reconstituted into what sounds like a Jimi Hendrix performance. It is, in a word, inexplicable.

There are a few other directorial choices that are puzzling, including plunging the theater into total darkness for the "Poor Jud Is Daid" scene between Jud and Curly, and the use of projected facial closeups that seems gimmicky in an Ivo van Hove sort of way. Yet, in spite of these quirky elements, the production succeeds at breathing exciting new life into a show everyone thought they knew practically by heart. This makes it the most engrossing musical currently on Broadway and a must-see.

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