“Oh, what a beautiful morning” — and oh, what a lot of blood has been splattered onto the main characters.
Seventy-six years since it revolutionized the American musical theater — with its character and plot-focused integration of songs, dialogue, choreography and design — and launched the genre’s golden age, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” is back on Broadway in a scaled-down, in-the-round, ominously-toned, experimental revival at Circle in the Square.
Marked by bold directorial choices that are invigorating one moment and jarring the next, this revival (directed by Daniel Fish, who is making his Broadway debut) is sure to provoke divisive responses from audience members, especially those who are fond of “Oklahoma!”
Personally speaking, I knew what to expect. This marked my third time attending the production, having previously caught it at Bard College in the summer of 2015 and then at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn during the fall.
“Oklahoma!” (which was last seen on Broadway in 2002 at the adjacent, far larger Gershwin Theatre) tends to be associated with Americana, optimism and innocent romance. It culminates with the young lovers getting married, a rousing choral ode and the bad guy’s defeat. To quote the title song, it has “plenty of heart and plenty of hope.”
In addition to scaling down the musical (removing the chorus, the original orchestrations and most of the dancing), Fish has refashioned “Oklahoma!” with a menacing air and unexpected gestures. New actions and characterizations are presented that are out of sync with the existing dialogue. In particular, the show’s climax has been fundamentally altered, leading to a finale marked by injustice, reckless violence and anger instead of celebration.
Furthermore, firearms are planted along the walls of the theater, some scenes are performed in total darkness or green lighting, live video is incorporated, actors sit around facing each other from different ends of the stage, and the narrative-style “Dream Ballet” has been replaced by a young woman (Gabrielle Hamilton) making sexually explicit, incomprehensible gestures. Despite cuts to the text, the show runs longer than usual (just under three hours) due to the deliberate pacing of scenes.
But for the most part, this production succeeds thanks to revealing and vulnerable performances all around, immersive intimacy (with the theater made to feel like a wooden communal hall), cute touches (including offering free chili and cornbread at intermission), a streamlined flow and new bluegrass-style orchestrations that work surprisingly well.
The cast includes Damon Daunno (unsure and soft-spoken as the cowboy Curly), Patrick Vaill (whose Jud is not a sinister villain but a helpless and despairing outcast), Rebecca Naomi Jones (contemplative and guarded as Laurey, the object of the affection of both Curly and Jud) and Mary Testa (proving an authoritative presence as Aunt Eller).
Ali Stroker, who previously appeared on Broadway in “Spring Awakening,” plays Ado Annie, who supposedly “cain’t say no” when men make advances. Full of personality, comic ingenuity and powerhouse vocals, she gives a truly a showstopping performance.
Like many other theatergoers, I would like to see a lavish revival of “Oklahoma!” at some point in the future, perhaps directed by Bartlett Sher (who previously staged Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” and “The King and I”). But in the meantime, Fish’s production is, for the most part, an intriguing and refreshing alternative.