Broadway review

This ‘Oklahoma!’ on Broadway is dark and different—brilliantly so

The Daily Beast

April 7, 2019

The excellent Bard Summerscape ‘Oklahoma!’ that opens Sunday on Broadway has the music you may remember, but its story of justice, revenge, and isolation is far from traditional.

When the lights go out during Bard Summerscape’s astonishing production of Oklahoma!, which opens Sunday night on Broadway (Circle in the Square, to Sept. 1), your body tenses.

This first blackout happens during the first confrontation between Curly McLain (Damon Daunno) and Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill), and soon the Circle in the Square is thrumming with Curly’s menacing whisper, encouraging a frightening, lonely, and unstable Jud to end his own life.

The men’s words to each other are said straight into microphones and come to our unnerved ears as shafts of light slowly re-illuminate the space around us. We see Jud’s terrified, terrifying face fill the wall, as filmed by camera.

That darkness is not just confined to one scene but is spiritually draped over Daniel Fish’s daring, brilliant, utterly absorbing re-interpretation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 musical play; a first in itself. Next would come Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), and The King and I (1951). Like modern productions of those musical plays, this version of Oklahoma! interrogates themes of gender, desire, crime, and punishment.

It does this seriously and with fun, and with an overall smart snappiness in its tone and characters. Forget your traditional idea of Oklahoma! either from school productions or the 1955 movie, starring Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones, and Rod Steiger. Fish’s characters don’t just smile and sing, and slap their knees, as they josh and chatter around Laurey’s farm house and the Skidmore ranch in turn of the 20th century Oklahoma.

They look inquiring, pained, split about what and who they want in their futures. The production—which I saw and loved when it was first mounted in New York City at St. Ann’s Warehouse last October—is played, extremely skillfully, for laughs and the very opposite of laughs. There are guns on the plywood walls. Shots will be fired.

The cleverness and freshness begins with Laura Jellinek’s set, which feels like a self-enclosed barn made of plywood. On one of the warehouse’s walls is a painting of ranch houses in the dust bowl. The action takes place in a central area, with the audience watching from rows of chairs, rising on each side.

If you are sitting on the ground level at one of the tables used by the actors, prepare for confrontations, boots suddenly landing above you to dance, declarations of love, bottles being lustily thrown down, smooches, guns being cocked, and occasionally an actor’s boot or gaze landing right there in front of you.

For much of the time the house lights stay on, and so the space feels intimate and shared—as if we are there, with them—for both audience and actors. Scott Zielinski’s effective and innovative lighting design also gives us a green for night.

The sparsely decorated space—it features just some chairs and tables, with cooking pots on them—is like a runway, and the actors not in a scene sometimes recline or pace outside it before entering or saying something.

Rows of colorful bunting in pink, green, red, and gold hang above our heads. There are casserole dishes, marked “hot” on each table. (At intermission the mood continues: Avail yourself of the little bowls of chili and cornbread.)

Daniel Kluger’s orchestrations and arrangements (with music direction by Nathan Koci, and bought to life by a wonderful band of musicians) remind us of the Oklahoma! we know, but with a pared-back bluegrass feel that sparks a consistent feel of vital difference.

Daunno charms us immediately with the first song, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” He wanders around the stage with an insouciant sexiness, helped immeasurable by very tight jeans and brown leather, tasseled chaps. (Terese Wadden’s stunning costumes also include acid-bright, period party dresses; as if turn of the 20th century Oklahoma might know 2018 Bushwick pretty well.)

Will Parker (James Davis) wears a similarly tight and flattering pair of brown suede chaps. Aunt Eller (the excellent Mary Testa) is both mother hen and protective grizzly; she frequently speaks for the audience, as when she tells the sexy Daunno: “If I wasn’t a ole womern, and if you wasn’t so young and smart alecky—why, I’d marry you and git you to set around at night and sing to me.” Aunt Eller wants the best suitor and future for her niece Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones).

Jones give Laurey a commanding toughness. She and Daunno flirt with each other, drop each other, and keep each other in sight as they sing “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.” Just watching them both will make you smile and blush.

When the company’s women sing “Many a New Day” and “Out of My Dreams,” especially the first, these are not songs of wide-eyed longing, but transformed into songs of anger and questioning. They meet the men on stage as sparring equals; their love is not easily won, and they are nobody’s objects.

Ali Stoker’s exquisitely naughty Ado Annie will probably remain the most familiar to fans of the musical; unapologetically sexual, she may choose, if it suits her, between Will Parker and Ali Hakim (Will Brill), a peddler who may come to regret arriving in town to trick people out of money with his talk of Persia and fancy fabrics.

Stoker made history in 2015 as the first actress in a wheelchair to appear on a Broadway stage, and here that chair is put to as whiz-bang effect as just another part of Oklahoma!’s vital choreography. We absolutely believe she is the “girl who cain’t say no.” The singing of the company in numbers like “The Farmer and the Cowman,” “All er Nuthin’,” and “Kansas City,” and the men’s “It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage!” is clear, delicious.

As with the musical choices, John Heginbotham’s choreography combines traditional hoedown and modern ballet, particularly in Gabrielle Hamilton’s appearance at the opening of act two to an ear-splitting rock score distillation of the movie’s “ballet scene” that emerges out of a dream of Laurey’s, which features abbreviated versions of the musical’s standards.

In the film, Laurey imagines herself the romantic object of a fighting Curly and Jud, as a tornado churns behind all three of them. Here Hamilton, who is black and wearing a shirt with the slogan “Dream Baby Dream,” throws herself viscerally all over the stage space, perhaps culturally owning, or insisting on owning, a space that at the turn of the century is not hers, but maybe in the future that her slogan-ed dress suggests. There is no sense that she is anyone’s object, but every sense she is demanding a space for herself, and significantly alighting upon the other actors of color.

Vaill as Jud has a sallow menace, particularly in his final scenes in hideous brown suit and gray slip-ons. Laurey is terrified of him; he is stalking her and is like a hipster villain, a grungy heel rather than burly storm of chaos. Vaill’s Jud has a wellspring of hurt and anger that engages one’s sympathy. He is both the outsider of Western myth and also an outsider we know today, so displaced and isolated that they remain a danger to the community.

He and Curly sing “Poor Jud Is Daid” together, and then Vaill “Lonely Room” by himself, his hollow, tormented face filmed and projected on to one of the theater’s walls. As well as a mutual loathing, they have an affinity with each other; at first it seems Jud returns to kill, and then he seems to want to be killed.

Who Jud is, and what his motivation and fate means, lends itself to the most radical themes of the production: What place and function does a community have with a Jud in its midst?

The company deconstructs elements of the musical as it goes, but never more thoroughly than at its end. No spoilers here, but if you ever wondered about that gallop to a happy ending following a wedding, a hearty rendition of the famous, O-ooooo, “Oklahoma!,” then a murder, Fish and his actors disassemble those blurred parts to something deeper and more unsettling.

What justice means, who gets to dispense it, and why they should when a wrongdoing has been committed is uneasily examined. We, like Cord Elam (Anthony Cason), knows something is being done wrongly, but if he says so too loudly, the community will eject him.

The company singing a gorgeous reprise of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” at the end here feels mournful, unsettling, a sticking plaster on a raw wound that is all the more visible with the blood spattering the chief characters.

This didn’t stop two women in my sight line merrily singing along to themselves, when all around them there were stunned and uneasy faces.

To be clear: You won’t leave the show feeling miserable, but neither will you be slapping your knees. But this production of Oklahoma! feels less “dark” than sensibly and successfully inquisitive. Fish and his cast ask reasoned questions of a musical that has contained all these questions in plain sight for many years—and in this Oklahoma! those questions are answered with vivid, pugnacious confidence.