Rebecca Naomi Jones & Damon Daunno in ‘Oklahoma!’ (Photo: Little Fang Photo)
Like a high school reunion where you reacquaint yourself with old flings and someone actually looks better than they did before, the nipped and tucked Oklahoma! reboot deserves a page among The Best Plastic (Theater) Surgeons in America.
Of course, that implies that director Daniel Fish’s reimagining is only external, which doesn’t do this Oklahoma! justice. Music supervisor Daniel Kluger, through new orchestrations and arrangements, has unearthed psychologically complex relationships among this band of settlers in turn-of-the-century “Indian Territory.”
Most theatergoers are familiar with the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic via summer stock productions or the 1955 film starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones. The original Broadway run lasted more than 2,000 performances and featured a cast of nearly 50 performers. This version opts for a lean ensemble of 12, and, for the most part, the chorus isn’t missed, except for Act II’s opening dream ballet.
Dreams are a recurrent theme in Hammerstein’s book, which was based on Lynn Rigg’s short-lived play Green Grow the Lilacs. Oklahoma wouldn’t enter the union until 1907, but homesteaders migrated west with hopes of a better life, taking advantage of the 1889 Land Run, in which settlers quickly flooded the territory upon President Benjamin Harrison’s declaration that the land would be theirs free and clear if it could be improved within five years.
Gone are the dainty petticoats when we’re introduced to Laurie Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and her Aunt Eller (Mary Testa). Instead, we see two weatherworn women tackling the daily grind of farm life. Their land provides employment to farmhands, including the reclusive Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill), whose uncomfortable presence doesn’t go unnoticed by Laurie. Curly McLain (Damon Daunno), a charming cowboy, has also taken a liking to Laurie, which creates simmering tension between the two unlikely suitors. Most productions have depicted Jud as a prairie thug — more stalker than love interest. But lingering glances and a catch-your-breath kiss between Laurie and Jud dangle the possibility that if their disparities weren’t so striking, there might be a future.
Fish’s adaptation, which premiered at Bard SummerScape in 2015 and returned with a limited run at St. Anne’s Warehouse last fall, is jarringly atmospheric in its new Broadway home. Scenic designer Laura Jellinek has covered most of Circle in the Square’s interior in unfinished plywood, with a muted mural on the far wall and racks of shotguns throughout. The neutral ambiance provides a blank canvas for Scott Zielinski’s dramatic lighting design, which vacillates between blindingly bright and washes over the theatre like the harsh sun on the flat plains, to chromatherapeutic saturations that punctuate emotional shifts in character. A judiciously used live video feed further escalate the tension.
The sparsity and technology are particularly effective in the smokehouse scene, where Curly visits Jud’s modest living quarters. Their heavily amplified conversation, delivered in nearly a whisper, foreshadows the latter’s demise, which will undoubtedly shock both R&H purists as well as those seeing the work for the first time.
Oklahoma! still delivers plenty of humor thanks to a secondary storyline featuring Ado Annie (a fiery Ali Stroker), who can’t say no to whichever man catches her eye, and her suitor Will Parker (James Davis). One of those romantic tangents is Persian peddler Ali Hakim, yet another object of Ado Annie’s ever-fleeting affections, portrayed with dry swarthy humor by Will Brill.
The onstage orchestra, featuring mandolin, pedal steel, banjo and acoustic guitar, reimagines Richard Rodgers’ score with a multi-faceted homage to the Grand Ole Opry tinged with rockabilly recklessness. Daunno sports a guitar rather than a lasso, and while it might be easier to imagine him playing a gig in an underground Bushwick bar rather than herding cattle, his endearing swagger still captivates.
If there’s one misstep in this Oklahoma! for a new generation, it is the dream ballet that opens Act II. Agnes de Mille’s original choreography offered a provocative psychological exploration of the musical’s lead characters. Distilled to a solo performance by an efficient but emotionally lacking solitary dancer (Gabrielle Hamilton), choreographer John Heginbotham is unable to harness the expansiveness of the original, nor reimagine its intent, which is otherwise so successfully achieved.
At play’s end, a horrible tragedy befalls this burgeoning community, escalated by an alteration to the original script that has Nokies (R&H traditionalists) shaking in their cowboy boots. In spite of its impact, Aunt Eller reminds us that it’s just another day on the prarie. “Oh, lots of things happens to folks,” she tells Laurie. “Sickness, er bein’ pore and hungry even — bein’ old and afeared to die. That’s the way it is—cradle to grave… You gotta be hearty, you got to be. You cain’t deserve the sweet and tender things in life less’n you’re tough.”
After all, territory folks should stick together.
Circle in the Square
1633 Broadway, NYC
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor and chief critic. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.