'Oklahoma!': Theater Review

Teddy Wolff
From left: Anthony Cason, Will Mann and Michael Nathanson in 'Oklahoma!'
Not your grandparents' 'Oklahoma!' or Rodgers & Hammerstein's, for that matter.

Daniel Fish stages a stripped-down, darker version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic musical, first seen at Bard SummerScape in 2015.

The program cover lists the show as "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!" but don't be fooled. The current revival at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse is very much director Daniel Fish's Oklahoma! Screaming with directorial ideas and concepts, some of which work and many others that don't, the production feels more like a doctoral thesis than a theatrical event. Purists will be appalled and fans of experimental theater will be thrilled. The revival certainly succeeds in its goal of making you think about the classic 1943 musical in different ways. Different, but not necessarily better.

First seen three years ago as part of the SummerScape festival at Bard College, this revival is deliberately downscaled, immersive and darkly tinged. The audience sits on two sides of the playing area, with the theater designed to resemble an old-fashioned community hall. Dozens of shotguns line the walls, and the long tables at which some viewers sit are adorned with red crock pots of chili emblazoned with the warning "Hot!" A seven-piece band performs at one end of the auditorium, its use of such instruments as mandolin and banjo giving the sparse arrangements a bluegrass feel.

The book and score are largely unchanged but the musical somehow feels much longer despite its conventional running time. The diverse casting includes an actress in a wheelchair, the marvelous Ali Stroker (Spring Awakening), as Ado Annie. Damon Daunno's Curly starts the show off with a rendition of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" in which he accompanies himself on acoustic guitar. Mary Testa's Aunt Eller whips up a batch of cornbread at one point, while several of the performers vigorously husk corn at another. During intermission, the audience is fed cups of chili, which would have been a nice touch if it hadn't been so bland and tasteless.

The performances are very much a mixed bag, with the women generally faring better than the men. Daunno seems determined to make his Curly as charmless as possible; Patrick Vaill's Jud looks like he's auditioning to play a villain in a slasher movie; and Michael Nathanson fails to fully mine the humor of the Persian traveling salesman Ali Hakim. Only James Davis' enjoyable Will Parker bears much resemblance to the character as written.

On the other hand, Rebecca Naomi Jones sings gorgeously and emotes movingly as Laurey; Stroker is a total delight as the sassy Ado Annie; and Broadway veteran Testa is so good as Aunt Eller that it makes you wish she were in a more traditional production.  

That the staging stresses the darker aspects of the story and characters would be fine except that it does so in such tedious fashion. The performers frequently mumble their lines to the point of being unintelligible, and the pacing is deadly slow. The familiar songs are rendered in a more organic, less showbizzy style that certainly makes you hear the lyrics anew but often proves underwhelming.

It's when the director most imposes himself on the material that you want to run screaming for the exits. A couple of scenes are played in total darkness, while the song "Pore Jud is Daid" features video projections of the actors in such close-up that Ingmar Bergman would be embarrassed. The scene depicting Jud's death is radically reimagined and ridiculously overwrought.

Worst of all is a horrific version of the "Dream Ballet" that would make original choreographer Agnes de Mille turn over in her grave. Featuring Gabrielle Hamilton and a crew of female dancers from NYU, it plays like a Twyla Tharp reject, accompanied by a screeching, punk rock-style rendition of the score, and goes on seemingly forever. The dance number kicks off the second act rather than its customary position as the Act I closer, and for good reason; many audience members would likely not have returned after intermission.

There will no doubt be many who consider this Oklahoma! a revelation, especially those who have only seen mediocre, cornpone productions. But while a lesser musical might benefit from such reinterpretation, Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic work, revolutionary for its time, really doesn't. It stands up very well on its own. So well, in fact, that it survives even this.

Venue: St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn
Cast: Anthony Cason, Damon Daunno, James Davis, Gabrielle Hamilton, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Will Mann, Michael Nathanson, Mallory Portnoy, Ali Stroker, Mitch Tebo, Mary Testa, Patrick Vaill
Music: Richard Rodgers
Book & lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Director: Daniel Fish
Choreography: John Heginbotham
Set designer: Laura Jellinek
Costume designer: Terese Wadden
Lighting designer: Scott Zielinski
Sound designer: Drew Levy
Projection designer: Joshua Thorson
Orchestrations & arrangements: Daniel Kluger
Production: Bard SummerScape
Presented by St. Ann's Warehouse, Eva Price