theater review

Finding the Brightness (and Badonkadonk) Amid the Menace: Re-Reviewing the Dark New Oklahoma!

From Oklahoma, now transferred to Circle in the Square. Photo: Little Fang Photo

When director Daniel Fish’s sultry, sinister take on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 musical game-changer Oklahoma! came to St. Ann’s Warehouse last fall, I, along with most of my critical colleagues, felt a bit like the show’s own Ado Annie: tingling with excitement and helpless to resist. Following a season marked by debate over the revival of “classic” musicals — how much vitality these works retain, what kind of reexaminations are warranted by the present moment, who’s doing the reexamining — Oklahoma! ripped into town like a brushfire: potent, illuminating, and rejuvenating. It seemed to prove the possibility of the revival that balances faith in its source material with a rigorous questioning of it. Without changing a word of Hammerstein’s book, and without compromising the show’s humor, exuberance, or its melodic beauty, Fish and his company dug right to Oklahoma!’s troubling roots. Inside the show’s brightness, its energy and optimism, they revealed a nuanced, bloody American parable.

Not that seeing a show twice is an easy business (especially once it’s jumped to Broadway), but this Oklahoma! rewards multiple viewings. Its shadows are by now well-documented — most recently in a deep dive by my colleague Frank Rich into the history of the show and the play by Lynn Riggs on which it was based — but on my second visit to its cornfields of the mind, I was struck not only by the production’s menace but by its joy. This Oklahoma! is no stuffy academic revisionist exercise — it’s a theatrical blow-out. And in its spirit of fun, here’s a little list: The things I saw anew on returning to Oklahoma!

1. The production has gotten fuller, freer, and funnier in its Broadway transfer. Its remarkable actors — especially Damon Daunno’s cocky, come-hither Curly McClain and James Davis’s ebullient, a-couple-knots-short-of-a-lasso Will Parker — feel loose, confidant, and playful, as if they’re all taking deeper breaths and, consequently, greater risks. At St. Ann’s Warehouse, the performances had a veneer of experimental coolness, a dry, distanced note in the delivery, as if the actors were standing a little apart from their characters and, along with the audience, observing these familiar figures they’d been given to play. Though that sense of comment remains — and Mary Testa and Rebecca Naomi Jones continue to make the most of it as a wry, ruthless Aunt Eller and a Laurey flush with intense, reserved desire — the characters’ humanity now feels as present and comprehensive as the director’s style.

One fascinating consequence of this subtle but profound shift is that while Patrick Vaill’s haunting performance as the tortured antagonist Jud Fry is perhaps the least altered among the show’s principals, his character’s pathos has dramatically increased as a direct result of the change in Daunno’s performance. It’s the paradox of human empathy: Because Curly is more sympathetic, Jud is more sympathetic too. Though he still struts, winks, and warbles with the voice of an alt-country god (“Don’t play the guitar!” Laurey pleads in vain, rolling her eyes at his smooth moves during the ravishing “People Will Say We’re in Love”), Daunno’s Curly is warmer, less calculating — rash and stubborn but not as willfully cruel as before. Now, Jud’s agony at his rival’s self-assurance and seeming success feel all the more heart-wrenching because we can see that, under all his resentment, part of Jud admires Curly too. Both men have become less stereotypically toxic and more human, and the violence they’re headed for is all the more tragic as a result.

2. Daniel Kluger’s orchestrations are the production’s exposed heart. Kluger told Playbill that “the jumping-off point” for his approach to Rodgers’s score was the question “What musicians would be at a potluck?,” and the country and western vibe he’s given the show feels revelatory, stripped down yet still sonically vibrant and varied. Accordion and pedal steel, upright bass and mandolin, even — in the show’s athletic, psychological take on Oklahoma!’s dream ballet — a whining, crunching electric guitar almost blowing out its amp — all the production’s instruments speak of America. Meanwhile, the remarkable band, led by Nathan Koci, is a part of the story’s human community. They’re always present on Laura Jellinek’s long, bare plywood runway of a stage — festooned with glittering foil streamers and decked with plastic coolers and Crock-Pots of chili — and under Scott Zielinski’s searingly bright lights, their reactions to the play’s events are just as crucial as those of our fellow audience members.

3. And speaking of those audience members and Zielinski’s lights … One of the great, risky thrills of Fish’s Oklahoma! is its smash-cuts between bright, golden, all-exposing light and complete darkness. There aren’t many in-betweens in Zielinski’s audacious design, and audience and actors are almost always under the same sky. The ability to watch the audience across from you — and the knowledge that you’re being watched — is, like the production itself, a coin with two faces: It’s got a giddy, exhilarating side (I got an immense amount of joy out of watching a big, bearded dude opposite me enjoy the living daylights out of the show, especially when Ali Stroker’s jubilantly horny Ado Annie got up close and personal with him) — and it speaks of our complicity as the play turns towards questions of communal prejudice and perverted justice. We’re all in this — whatever this is and however ugly it turns — together.

4. The title song is still a sock in the gut with an electrified glove. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s sunny story of young love and rivalry at a box social always ended with a death, and Fish turns the play’s violence explicit and undeniable, sucking all the air out of Curly’s hollow and chillingly familiar claim of “self-defense.” While the blood is still wet, the ensemble leaps into the play’s famous, forward-looking anthem, and not a single cast member sings from the same emotional state. Cord Elam (Anthony Cason) — the federal marshal whose attempts to see justice served have just been brushed aside by complacent community consensus — sings with hard, bitter eyes and a withering snap of sarcasm. The unflinching, titanium-lunged Testa, whose Aunt Eller is a force of nature with a troubling set of values, belts out victoriously, but without a smile. Jud — dead but singing — weeps and rages. Curly seems, for the first time, lost. And Stroker’s irrepressible Annie and Jones’s self-possessed Laurey seem, more than anything, terrified. For both of them, the play has seemingly been a romantic comedy, a choice between suitors. But here at the end, having made their choices, they sing with wide, uncertain eyes, as if they’re suddenly and for the first time aware of the tiny room they inhabit, a room built by men where the walls are closing in. They sing with all the wild desperation of the search for self beyond a partner, beyond a man’s protection and possession. They sing not for Jud or Curly or for Will or Ali Hakim the peddler (a droll Will Brill), but for a third option — and where the hell is that?

5. Lord, but this cast can sing. Obvious? Maybe. But for the folks out there who grew up with Oklahoma!, who might be wary when they hear critics wax ecstatic about Fish’s sexy, scary interpretation or the production’s lurking shadows — know that the show’s music not only comes through in all its wit and beauty; it soars. Jones stays in her chest voice more than floaty ingenue Laureys of yore, and her resonant, searching “Out of My Dreams” is a goosebump inducer, while the sharp, mellifluous “Many a New Day” that she sings with the female ensemble is musically lovely and, theatrically, a tart, just-raunchy-enough piece of comedy. Vaill pours his soul into a brooding and then thunderously nasty “Lonely Room,” and Stroker, with her high-flying lusty twang and her pitch-perfect comic touch, tucks the audience right into her pocket and goes about her scene-stealing business.

Bonus Round: Here’s one for the road, y’all: butts. You heard me. Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! is Tina Belcher-approved. I respect a musical that gives me extraordinary performances, gorgeously reimagined songs, a piercing allegory of the American experiment in all its vigor and its brutality, and a cast that, in costume designer Terese Wadden’s jeans and chaps, knows what they’re working with. Expect to be shimmied at. This is an Oklahoma! with — in every glorious sense — junk in the trunk.

The Brightness Amid the Menace: Re-Reviewing Oklahoma!