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Not O.K.!

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Not O.K.!

A perverse Broadway revival of a classic American musical imposes brutal interpretations. April 19, 2019
Arts and Culture

Oklahoma!, at Circle in the Square

Would you attend a revival of a musical that sets The Sound of Music in Auschwitz? How about setting The King and I on the Bataan Death March? Mary Poppins on Mars, anyone? Broadway has lots of bad ideas. The current revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, the iconic American musical, is another. It’s not easy to turn an American classic about the joy of beautiful mornings and corn as high as an elephant’s eye in a land of open skies and endless promise into an attack on American gun culture, sexual politics, class discrimination, and a corrupt system of justice, but yippee-oh-ki-yay, director Daniel Fish’s revival—or, more accurately, his reinvention—has done just that.

Revivals are inherently tricky enterprises, but Oklahoma! cried out for reconsideration. Having transformed musical theater when first staged in 1943, the musical has become a staple of high school and community theater. Initially staged at Bard College in 2015, Fish’s production did a sold-out run last year at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn before opening April 7 at Circle in the Square, a wonderfully intimate space, with a rectangular stage that the audience surrounds on three sides.

Some of Fish’s innovations are brilliant. Set designer Laura Jellinek turns the stage into a modern-day community town hall, complete with festive streamers dangling from rafters, colored lights, and long folding tables topped with hampers, portable coolers, and pots containing corn that its main female characters shuck. The revival’s most successful feature is the re-orchestration of Rodgers’s gorgeous score. Daniel Kruger has reduced the orchestra from 28 musicians to seven and set the band on the far end of the stage. Led by Nathan Koci, the musicians play instruments not involved in the original version—a mandolin and steel guitar, for instance. The band’s banjo, double bass, fiddle, and accordion give its celebrated songs—“Many a New Day,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “Out of My Dreams”—a fresh and authentic country-western spin.

But, foreshadowing the doom to come, the creators could not resist racking rifles on the theater’s walls, unsubtle symbols of America’s gun culture. 

Set in Oklahoma in 1906, a year before the territory attained statehood, the musical’s lengthy first act establishes the rivalry between cowboy Curly McLain (Damon Daunno) and downcast farmhand Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill), both of whom want to marry Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones). The casting, alas, is problematic. Jones, who is black, plays Laurey as a steely-eyed, independent frontier gal. But she lacks a strong voice. Damon Daunno, who plays Curly, is a better singer, but his build is thin and wiry, and he lacks the sex appeal of say, Hugh Jackman, who starred as Curly in an earlier revival, or the classic good looks of Gordon MacRae in the memorable 1955 film version. Patrick Vaill’s Jud looks less like a troubled, down-and-out ranch worker than a refugee from Haight-Ashbury, circa 1968.

The utter lack of chemistry between Curly and Laurey is problematic, blunting the show’s romantic force. The rivalry between Curly and Jud too often turns ugly. Their famous confrontation in a smokehouse is reinforced by the director’s heavy-handed use of a blackout when Curly visits Jud and admires the rope hanging from the rafters, ominously noting how easily Jud could end his miserable life.

The second romantic triangle adds comic relief. Ado Annie (Ali Stroker) is torn between Will Parker (James Davis), a cowboy who loves her, and Ali Hakim (Will Brill), a “Persian” peddler and ladies’ man who seeks to bed (but not wed) her. All three give superb performances. So does Mary Testa, the Broadway veteran who plays Aunt Eller, Laurey’s protective, homespun mother and town mediator. Stroker made news by becoming the first wheelchair-bound actor to appear on Broadway. She dances in her wheelchair and flirts playfully with male members sitting close to the stage; her portrayal of Annie as an oversexed girl “Who Caint Say No,” is not only a crowd-pleaser but also a salute to disabled performers. But despite her exuberance and relative charm, she is neither as funny or as subtle as Celeste Holm in the original production or Gloria Grahame in the film version.

The Ralph Laurenesque costumes (designed by Terese Wadden) are a decidedly mixed bag. There’s no shortage of form-fitting denim, flannel shirts, vests, and cowboy boots, but Daunno as Curly seems uncomfortable in his brown-suede chaps. His bow-legged swaggering across the stage is at odds with the traditional depiction of Curly as confident but somewhat shy. What on earth does Laurey see in him? Ali Hakim the peddler, in navy blue slacks and jacket, seems dressed for a different play. So, too, does Judd, whose long hair, tattered sweatshirt, and open plaid shirt make him look like a cross between an aging hippie and a member of a motorcycle gang.

The sequined “Dream Baby Dream” logo on the oversized white T-shirt worn by Gabrielle Hamilton in her rendition of the “dream ballet” also belongs in a different musical—say, Rent. But that’s just the start of what’s wrong with the jarring reinterpretation of the dream dance that Agnes de Mille choreographed so stunningly in the original play and the 1955 film. Moved from its traditional spot at the end of Act I to Act II, the ballet is supposed to portray Laurey’s erotic longing and conflicted feelings toward Curly and Jud. But because the nearly bald Hamilton jumps, lunges, and bounces aimlessly around the stage to a deafening electric guitar as cowboy boots drop with a thud from the sky, the dance, though shorter than the original, seems not only a distraction, but also interminable.

Director Fish occasionally offers updated insights into American pioneer culture. At the fundraiser dance at which men bid on hampers of food prepared by town women, Fish suggests convincingly that they are bidding on the women themselves. Also original was directing the play’s main female characters to snap phallic ears of corn in half while singing “Many a New Day.” But as Charles Isherwood argues in Broadway News, students of recent theatrical trends will not find much new in this production. Ivo van Hove, whose Network is now on Broadway, also uses live video. (Isherwood notes that The Wooster Group, for one, has been using similar video techniques for years.) Network, too, offers food and drink to its audience on stage. And Scott Zielinski’s blinding lights, which stay on for much of the show to simulate the harsh summer sun of the American plain, have long been a hallmark of “immersion” theater.

What’s new here is Fish’s decision to focus his ire on America’s obsession with guns. True, the original musical had plenty of firearms. During a square dance at the town social, Aunt Eller ends a fight between cowboys and farmers over fences and water rights by firing a gun in the air to silence them. Peddler Ali Hakim is forced to marry Gertie Cummings when her father threatens him with a shotgun. Ado Annie’s father also points a shotgun at suitors to protect his daughter’s dubious virtue.

But Fish’s determination to highlight the carnage inflicted by guns leads him to rewrite—indeed, to pervert—the play’s crucial scene: the fight between Curly and Jud, in which Jud dies. In the original production, a drunken Jud attacks Curly with a knife. As Curly dodges the blade, Jud falls on his own knife. At a makeshift trial, a jury made up of local town folk, aware of the longstanding rivalry between the men and believing that Jud’s death was accidental, declare Curly “not guilty.” Moments later, Curly and Laurey leave for their honeymoon on their proverbial surrey with the fringe on top.

In Fish’s rendition, Jud presents a gun to Curly as a wedding gift, seeming to offer himself up for slaughter. There is no struggle. Curly simply points the gun at Jud and fires—point blank—splattering his own and his bride’s faces and white suits with his rival’s blood.

This artifice has an overtly political purpose, if not a convincing dramatic one: it permits Fish to portray the jury’s speedy verdict as a judicial travesty that ignores a terrible crime. Frontier justice, it is suggested, is cruel and expedient, and not so different from what we have today. When the band strikes up a reprise of the musical’s jubilant title song, an anthem not only for the wedding but also for the birth of a new state—“You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma, O.K.!”—what was once a joyful moment turns dark. In Fish’s Oklahoma!, neither the blood-soaked newlyweds nor the newborn state are likely to be fine.

While the best revivals—such as Bartlett Sher’s My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center Theater—infuse classic plays with new themes, questions, and meanings, they are often most effective when remaining true to their creators’ spirit and intent. It is one thing to emphasize the darkness that lies beneath this iconic musical’s cheery surface. It is another to turn what Rodgers and Hammerstein intended as a celebration of the American spirit into a sanguinary condemnation of it.

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