'Oklahoma!': Theater Review

Oklahoma -Production still 1 -Publicity-H 2019
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Cain't Say No.

The landmark 1943 Rodgers & Hammerstein show that redefined American musical theater gets a radical makeover that brings out disturbing undercurrents.

There's no denying the abundant pleasures to be had from a sumptuous large-scale revival of a classic American musical with a top-flight cast. But a bold reimagining of a familiar work from the canon can deliver an altogether different and far more startling thrill, bringing out unexpected textures and exposing previously subterranean thematic seams. The virtues of a revisionist production don't negate those of the traditional presentation, or vice versa. As the song says, "the farmer and the cowman should be friends." Purists will sniff anyway, but for audiences open to experiencing Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! from a fresh perspective, director Daniel Fish's probing revamp will be a revelation.

Without altering the existing text, Fish and his excellent 12-member ensemble shine a new light on this corn-fed tale of two romantic triangles, one played for drama, the other for laughs. What's significantly different is that a show normally interpreted as a celebration of the American spirit here unearths the darkness beneath the sunny surface — the blood in the soil of the heartland and the fear-based hostility toward outsiders that continues to fester today.

If you didn't know the material's pedigree you might almost mistake this for a new work, so organically does it tap into contemporary issues from sexual politics to gun violence and class discrimination. By traveling back to the prairies of what was then known as Indian Territory in 1906, on the eve of Oklahoma obtaining statehood, this audacious revival has a lot to say about where we are now as a nation. That it does so without any need to hammer its topical relevance is miracle enough. Even more impressive though is the fact that it remains such bracing entertainment, compromising neither the drama nor the comedy. And what orchestrator Daniel Kluger has done with the score is simply gorgeous.

Set designer Laura Jellinek has encased the entire theater in the same raw plywood that provides the stage flooring, with rifle racks all over the walls and festive streamers that suggest the kind of community hall where the story's box social is held. That early-1900s tradition is a fund-raising dance at which men bid on hampers of food prepared by the community's women — supposedly unidentified, though frequently with a hint between sweethearts as to who assembled them. In Fish's version, it's plain as day that the men are bidding directly on the women, like a cattle auction, the carnal undertone fed by innuendo about the luscious contents of their hampers and the succulence of their pies.

The terrific seven-piece band, led by music director Nathan Koci, sits in a shallow pit area near one end of the stage, with the audience on three sides and the cast frequently interacting with the musicians. Kluger has ingeniously reworked Richard Rodgers' lush melodies for the kind of instruments that might have been played in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma — mandolin, banjo, double bass, fiddle, accordion — and added pedal steel guitar to enhance the flavors of country, folk and bluegrass that transform the familiar songs. The vocal arrangements are equally evocative, feeding directly into the actors' fine-grained character work.

That starts with the cocky bronco buster Curly McLain. While affable masculine self-assurance has been imprinted onto the role by actors from Alfred Drake and Gordon MacRae through Hugh Jackman and Patrick Wilson, Damon Daunno seems dangerous from the outset. He's sexy as hell, with his sauntering gait and laconic manner, but there's menace beneath his seductive words, though that doesn't negate Curly's potent charm.

When he pipes up on "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," a cappella at first and then strumming his guitar, he's claiming ownership of the day, even before he gets to the suddenly ominous-sounding lyric: "I've got a beautiful feelin' / Everythin's goin' my way." He wears his badge of aggressive male entitlement with pride, making even a playful line like "Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry" sound like a warning of fowl carnage. Kluger strips all the jaunty quaintness out of "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top," so Curly sings it like a mesmerist lulling the object of his desire, Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones), into a trance. And Scott Zielinski's lighting conspires by going from stark houselights-up to a stage blanketed in dreamy nighttime.

If Curly seems to apply the land-rush mentality to everything he wants, Jones makes it instantly clear that her Laurey is no blushing ingénue. She's brittle and standoffish, a flinty woman of the land not unlike her hard-bitten Aunt Eller (Mary Testa, fierce and funny as ever), with whom she lives. Finding Curly altogether too full of himself, she agrees to go to the social with farmhand Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) just to spite him. Then, with her typical mix of impulsiveness and indecision, she regrets it immediately, afraid to be alone with the creepily intense Jud.

The farmhand generally gets tagged as the bad guy, but Jud in truth is a much more complicated figure. Usually played by brawnier, thuggish types, here he's gaunt and lost-looking. There's a febrile Brad Dourif quality to Vaill's characterization, a desperation bred out of the loneliness and resentment of the socially ostracized. Sure, there are notes of malice in him, and he gives off a stalker vibe when not skulking around the grimy smokehouse where he spends most of his time, its walls plastered with "artistic" French postcards — what we now call porn. None of this needs to be shown in Fish's spare staging; it's clearly visualized in the way people talk about Jud, and in his combustible mix of awkwardness and anger.

Jud's worst crime is being hopelessly in love with Laurey, which is what makes him such a threat to Curly. In one of the production's most unnerving scenes, staged by Fish in pitch-black darkness, Curly goes to see Jud in the smokehouse. With the smooth skill of a cold-hearted manipulator, Curly admires the sturdy rope hanging from the rafters and observes how easy it would be for Jud to end his life. Making it even more sinister, he spins this suggested suicide as the prelude to a funeral where folks would weep and sing sad songs for Jud. "You never know how many people like you till you're daid," Curly tells him.

You can feel the audience holding its collective breath during that chilling exchange. Fish then deepens our involvement by splashing grainy, live-feed black-and-white night-vision video of Jud's face in massive close-up across the stage's rear-wall prairie panorama. Vaill's expression morphs from dismay to a tentative smile as Curly sings the mock lament "Pore Jud Is Daid." As the subject eventually joins in, he seems to feel an oddly soothing release at the thought of people mourning him while he lies in a box, "peaceful and serene." The scene is shocking in its cruelty, even more so when the camera pulls back to frame the faces of both men, still shrouded in darkness but looking eye to eye with homoerotic intimacy.

Jud's doom is preordained from that moment. His tragedy is hastened by Laurey's confused feelings for him, which here register as a tenderness she can barely acknowledge to herself, colored by shameful lust. "I ain't good enough, am I?" says Jud, confronting her. "I'm a h'ard hand, got dirt on my hands, pig-slop. Ain't fitten to tetch you. You're better, so much better." More than any veiled threat from Jud, it's the harshness of Laurey's reaction, played with blistering scorn by Jones, that gives the scene such a powerful sense of dread.

All this might give the misleading impression that Fish has drained every ounce of rambunctious fun from Oklahoma! But what he's really doing is expertly following Oscar Hammerstein's lead in coaxing forth exactly the kind of rich, fully integrated and continually evolving drama that made this such a groundbreaking musical for its time, while giving it a contemporary edge. And his interweaving of the show's lighter strands demonstrates expert modulation of tone.

Leading the charge on the comedy front is the incandescent Ali Stroker as an outrageously horny Ado Annie, in a triumphant performance packed with infectious joy. Promised in marriage to the utterly besotted dim-bulb cowboy Will Parker (James Davis), she also has a hankering for crafty Persian traveling peddler Ali Hakim (Will Brill). If Laurey is ashamed of her desire, making her hard and circumspect, Ado Annie is gloriously exultant in hers, but both women have ways of resisting men's attempts to stake a proprietary claim on them.

Stroker's take on the character's paean to romantic passion, "I Cain't Say No," is a rip-roaring delight, punctuated by wild little yips of irrepressible pleasure. The casting in this role of an actress who uses a wheelchair is genius, adding immeasurably to the full-force gusto with which Ado Annie revels in her sexuality. This might be my favorite performance on Broadway all season. Stroker literally lights up the stage, maneuvering her wheelchair like an extension of her body, particularly during the rousing dance at the social to "The Farmer and the Cowman." (While costumer Terese Wadden outfits the cast in period-nonspecific denim, flannel and Western-wear, she delivers a riot of gaudy color and '50s-style square-dance kitsch for the social.)

It doesn't hurt that both Davis and Brill are so hilarious. Will comes on all manly, pumped up from a recent Kansas City trip and a big win on the rodeo circuit, but struggling to stay aboard the hedonistic roller coaster that is Ado Annie. His goofy dance moves are bliss. Ali, by contrast, is a wily opportunist, and Brill delivers his sardonic dialogue in a deadpan style that owes a debt to Bill Murray. The character's womanizing more than once leaves him looking down the barrel of an angry father's shotgun. There's inspired comedy also from Mallory Portnoy as Gertie Cummings, a man-hungry party girl from across the river, with the laugh of a hyena on meth.

The majority of the exemplary cast has been with the show since its sold-out Brooklyn run at St. Ann's Warehouse last fall, some going back to its 2015 Bard SummerScape premiere. The depth of their characterizations is notable, but so too is the expressiveness of their vocals.

Jones sings with tremendous feeling, going from raspy lows to giddy highs, while Daunno injects a gentle, lilting twang into his voice, at times rising into a sweet falsetto that teeters on the edge of a yodel. Their version of one of the great Rodgers & Hammerstein conditional love songs, "People Will Say We're in Love," starts with Jones in stubbornly antagonistic mode, before Daunno takes over and turns it into a swinging challenge to Laurey to maintain her detachment. As Zielinski dims the lights again, she responds with a twitchy dance of romantic rapture. But the real stunner comes later when they reprise the song as a duet performed together at a mic stand, with a swoony arrangement reminiscent of k.d. lang's early country recordings. Just beautiful.

Fish's most daring element, and the one likely to be the deal-breaker for anyone on the fence about the director's approach, is the dream ballet introduced into the original production by choreographer Agnes de Mille. Moved from its traditional spot as the Act I closer to the top of Act II, it's more tightly focused on Laurey herself, with the vigorously athletic dancer Gabrielle Hamilton representing her subconscious — wearing a too-literal "Dream Baby Dream" sequined T-shirt.

The interlude has a striking opening, with Hamilton galloping around the full oval of the stage like a wild horse bolting out of the pen. But the sequence goes on way too long and feels more like a legacy Fish felt compelled to honor than an integral part of this vision. Still, as choreographed by John Heginbotham with a nod to de Mille, and accompanied by wailing electric guitars, it's raw and sexual, conveying the danger coiled in Laurey's pent-up feelings. While the production is essentially colorblind, the fact that both Jones and Hamilton are black is significant in that it heightens introspective Laurey's struggle to figure out where she fits into the community.

The brutality of the dance erupts of course in the shattering final scenes, when wedding festivities are halted by violence. As the community, led with forbidding authority and zero conscience by Aunt Eller, conspires to bend justice and overlook a crime, the newly married couple seem to represent the new American century, their white wedding garb, like their faces, spattered in blood as they begin their new life.

And as the band strikes up a reprise of the proud title song, a jubilant anthem for a brand new state, the various characters' voices are tinged with anxious optimism, grim stoicism or even defiant fury. "You're doin' fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma, O.K!" You wonder if any of them really will be fine, and it sends you out of this scorching revival with a shiver.

Venue: Circle in the Square, New York
Cast: Damon Daunno, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Patrick Vaill, Mary Testa, Ali Stroker, James Davis, Will Brill, Anthony Cason, Mallory Portnoy, Mitch Tebo, Will Mann, Gabrielle Hamilton

Music: Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs
Director: Daniel Fish
Set designer: Laura Jellinek
Costume designer: Terese Wadden
Lighting designer: Scott Zielinski
Sound designer: Drew Levy
Projection designer: Joshua Thorson
Music director and additional vocal arrangements: Nathan Koci
Orchestrations, arrangements and music supervisor: Daniel Kluger
Choreographer: John Heginbotham
Original choreography: Agnes de Mille
Production: Bard Summerscape
Presented by Eva Price, Level Forward, Abigail Disney, Barbara Manocherian & Carl Moellenberg, James L. Nederlander, David Mirvish, Mickey Liddell & Robert Ahrens, BSL Enterprises & Magicspace Entertainment, Berlind Productions, John Gore Organization, Cornice Productions, Brad Fisher/R. Gold, LAMF/J. Geller, T. Narang/ZKM Media, R/F/B/V Group, Araca/IPN, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Tamar Climan