Posted in Broadway Musicals, Theater

Oklahoma!

Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Curley (Damon Daunno)

The overture’s missing. Ditto the chorus.

The first act ends not with a dream ballet, but with Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones) singing a stunning one chorus reprise of “Out of My Dreams,” a capella. The ballet opens the second act. It’s a solo dance—Dream Laurey, Curley and Jud, not to mention the dance hall girls of Ali Hakim’s dirty postcards, are nowhere to be found.

Two key scenes are played in total darkness.

These are only a few of the many differences in the Tony-winning revival of “Oklahoma!” at the Circle in the Square Theater in New York, probably the most controversial show now running on Broadway. Battles over this production’s merits have been raging in on-line forums for months; critics have either loved it or hated it. I saw it on Friday night, and while a lot of the show made me grin with delight, I nevertheless appreciated those aspects of the production that failed to make me do so. Director Daniel Fish’s vision is never less than thoughtful, and the choices he’s made that result in Rodgers and Hammerstein purists screaming “Betrayal!” in fact grow organically out of the text. Perhaps what disturbs people the most is that he’s divorced the show from the times that gave birth to it. “Oklahoma!” premiered during the World War II year of 1943, when unstinting American optimism was essential. In the years since we’ve come to realize our history as a nation wasn’t as squeaky-clean as those of that era believed.

Daniel Fish’s production is an intimate one. The show is presented in the round, more accurately in a rectangular playing area lined with picnic tables (chili and corn bread are served at intermission). The cast is pared down to speaking roles only and all act as chorus. You’d think the musical aspects of the show would suffer, but never fear. When the cast sings the title song, those soaring choral lines are neatly covered by eleven actors, including four women, sopranos all, who absolutely fly. The songs are performed country & western style, and accompanied by a seven-person band, consisting of accordion/snare (conductor), violin, cello, string bass, banjo, steel guitar/mandolin/electric guitar and an additional electric guitar, supplemented at times by Curley (Damon Daunno) on acoustic guitar. 

If you think there’s no way to shoehorn Richard Rodgers into country & western mode, guess again. It all works, but with one exception—“People Will Say We’re in Love,” which sort of goes clunk though it’s easy to understand why. One of the best aspects of this production is the refreshing youth of its principal actors. As a result Laurey’s initial brattiness and Curley’s near-adolescent boasting make perfect sense. Their solo numbers, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” “Many a New Day” and “Out of My Dreams” reflect their youth, but the lyrics of “People Will Say We’re in Love” struck me as a bit too sophisticated for this Curley and Laurey. After all the energetic country & western twang we’d been hearing, this song’s music comes across as staid ’40’s pop. This is a reversion to your parents’ “Oklahoma!,” and it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb, especially after all the musical fun we’ve been having.

This is at times a dramatically raw production. Its take on Jud is interesting—though Laurey calls him a “growly man,” Parick Vaill, who plays him, is tall and rather poetic-looking (and has a terrific singing voice).  What makes him frightening is neither his physique nor his manner but rather his obsession with Laurey. When Curley confronts him in his smokehouse lair, the lights in the theater go dark, further putting the audience on edge. Critics have protested that this is too much for such a sunny work, but is it really? Think about it: Curley basically urges Jud to commit suicide, casting the funeral that would follow as a celebration of his character. Director Daniel Fish suggests that Curley and Jud are two sides of the same coin, and he may be right. Curley is universally liked, but nobody likes Jud, a fact made obvious in the scene where Laurey’s picnic hamper is put up for auction at the social. There’s a strong sense that the men Aunt Eller urges to bid don’t do so to help Curley win the girl, but are instead doing it because they hate Jud., the eternal outsider. 

Ado Annie (Ali Stroker) gets her big “Oklahoma hello” from Will Parker (James Davis)

The last 15 minutes of the show are a roller coaster. Curley and Laurey’s wedding scene of course features “Oklahoma!,” performed as joyfully as you remember it, the audience clapping along, only to end abruptly when Jud shows up. The gun he presents to Curley as a wedding gift is fired when Jud rushes toward Curley and Laurey, whose faces and wedding clothes are spattered with blood. In contrast to other productions as well as the “Oklahoma!” film, the on-the-spot trial which follows is played not for laughs, but in all seriousness. The actors’ delivery slows to a crawl with pauses between each line. The audience is completely silent (though I was becoming irritated at how much this scene was being stretched out). When Cord Elam, the US Marshall, protests the absence of legal formality, Aunt Eller’s responding threat to him for interfering is deadly serious; while the tension is eventually broken, it doesn’t go away. At the conclusion of the show, when the cast reprises “Oklahoma!,” Cord approaches Laurie, looming over her, as if to say “This is your fault” (Does he think she led Jud on?) She joins in the song, but angrily, with full awareness that her future with Curley has been literally and irrevocably stained (This was the version of the song that was performed at the Tony Awards, which made viewers ask “Why is she so pissed off?”). It’s not a happy ending, but I think a valid one, given what we’ve seen, and a logical conclusion to that trial scene.

The performances are uniformly excellent. I especially enjoyed Will Brill, sharply funny as Ali Hakim, and was intrigued by Patrick Vaill’s Jud. But most of all, Ali Stroker as Ado Annie simply exceeds expectations. What a voice! That Tony she won was deserved tenfold.

This is a show that requires open minds. I strongly urge you to see it and make up your own.