You’re Doin’ Fine, Oklahoma

THEATER REVIEW: Oklahoma!
Circle in the Square Theatre, New York, May 31, 2019

I expected the experimental new Broadway revival of Oklahoma! would be intriguing, if nothing else. But I fell for the production and can’t get it off my mind. Daniel Fish and company attack the Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein II musical in a way usually reserved for Shakespeare: by taking a well-known text, stripping it down to its essence, and shaking it up to see what comes out.

Many revivals of Golden Age musicals claim to find the darkness and sex in shows that have already had those things. Oklahoma! is no different: beneath its operetta trappings, there’s always been a young woman discovering her budding sexuality, and an angry farmhand who disrupts the territory’s uneasy sense of community. But this Oklahoma! feels so different, from the gymnasium setting (all gathered together like guests at the box social) to the stunning new musical arrangements that hew closer to folk and country than traditional baritone-soprano balladeering. 

This Oklahoma! is genuinely scary, rowdy, and angry. There are guns on the walls surrounding the audience, which the farmhands and cowboys race toward during a box social scuffle. And one is used (spoiler alert), in the largest change to the underlying text. Oh yeah, that change has ruffled some feathers.The trial that ends the play is an afterthought in the movie version–a quick way to wrap up the story and send the lovers off on one last cheerful reprise. Here, it’s chilling.

Mary Testa’s cunning Aunt Eller is the matriarch who oversees this community. When Eller urges the men to bend the law, it’s usually funny; but Testa shows us the cool menace behind it. This is frontier justice, in a territory that hasn’t gotten to statehood yet; Jud gets as much deference in death as he did in life. Earlier, when Curly visits Jud in his smokehouse, the lights drop out, and the two men’s faces are projected on the wall, inches from each other, as they sing about pore Jud’s funeral. Patrick Vaill’s Jud isn’t a muscly bull but a scrawny, shy boy unaccustomed to intimacy. He may be a virgin; his impotence feeds his anger. There’s no place for him in this town; his death is pitiful, a commissioned suicide.

Of course, there’s plenty of room for humor and sex appeal. A lot of people–me included–melted each time Damon Duanno’s Curly opened his mouth, with his Johnny Cash croon bellowing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin” and charming Laurey with his “People Will Say We’re In Love.” He’s a jerk, you realize, despite all that charm, so cocksure of himself that he has no idea what Laurey wants. Ali Stroker’s Ado Annie (with her well-deserved Tony win) is the other cast standout. She’s a force of life on stage, a sex-assured woman who, far from being a ditz or an airhead, is simply unashamed of getting she wants (i.e. Men). And she’s terrific belting out “I Cain’t Say No.” 

Rebecca Naomi Jones gives us a complicated Laurey, one I’m still wrestling with. She’s the core of the show that everyone’s story orbits around. The dream ballet has always been a journey into her inner yearning, yet Gabrielle Hamilton’s Dream Laurey (in her DREAM BABY DREAM) taps into something raw and hungry, an emancipation from the strictures of Laurey’s time. Jones is tight-lipped and inscrutable; she’s playing by the rules laid out before her while seeming to say, This is the best I can do?

This Oklahoma! has a rough-around-the-edges feel. Fish is sometimes throwing things into the mix to see what sticks. The final reprise of the title song is unsettling in a “directed” way; I did wonder, what did Ado Annie have to be so angry about? Or Will Parker? Directorial overstatement and all, I loved how fresh Oklahoma! felt on that small stage, like I’d never really seen the show before. And there we were, cheering and clapping along to “O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A!”, only to realize how we–the audience–are implicated in the violence and prejudice that comes next.

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