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‘Oklahoma!’ review: Daniel Fish’s experimental take on a classic is boosted by a brilliant cast

The Off-Broadway revival at St. Ann’s Warehouse allows the audience to experience “Oklahoma!” with fresh eyes and ears.

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno in "Oklahoma!"

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno in "Oklahoma!"   

'Oklahoma!' runs through Nov. 11 at St. Ann’s Warehouse. 45 Water St., DUMBO. stannswarehouse.org.

“Oh, what a beautiful mornin’,” a romantic cowboy declares — but the “bright golden haze on the meadow” has been replaced by dark storm clouds in Daniel Fish’s stripped-down, rough-edged revamp of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1943 musical theater classic “Oklahoma!,” which is playing St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO after premiering in 2015 at Bard College.

“Oklahoma!” is credited with ushering in the golden age of the American musical, by integrating song, character, dance and design into a seamless whole. This marks the first major staging to play New York since the 2002 Broadway revival. 

Fish — who is known for experimental work that combines elements of theater, film and opera — has set the musical in a large, wooden communal hall. The divided audience sits along risers and at tables that surround a rectangular playing space.

The mood is relaxed and casual. There is little separation between the audience and the actors, who often sit around motionless in chairs and watch as the plot unfolds. At intermission, audience members receive complimentary helpings of chili and cornbread, as if they are attending the annual box social alongside the farmers and cowboys.

There is no ensemble, no pausing for scene changes (creating a streamlined flow), little dancing and just a seven-piece bluegrass band to play the reorchestrated score.

Also distinguishing Fish’s production is a pervading ominous tone. Although Fish does not appear to have altered the lyrics or dialogue, he has radically remade “Oklahoma!”

In addition to plunging some scenes into total darkness or green lighting, Fish has reconceived the famous “dream ballet” (making it graphic and chaotic and removing any actual ballet), as well as the climactic showdown between Curly and Jud, which then brings an air of aggression and guilt to the traditionally cheery and optimistic ending. The final reprise of the title song feels more punk-rock than musical comedy.

For the most part, this proves to be an intriguing and compelling interpretation that allows the audience to experience “Oklahoma!” with fresh eyes and ears. It is far preferable to the kind of uninspired, forgettable revival you might see at a regional theater.

The superb cast includes Damon Daunno (soft-spoken and sensitive as the cowboy Curly), Rebecca Naomi Jones (opinionated and contemplative as the farm girl Laurie), Mary Testa (effortlessly comic as Aunt Eller), Patrick Vaill (unusually vulnerable and sympathetic as the traditionally menacing ranch hand Jud) and Ali Stroker (assertive and blazing with personality as the man-chasing Ado Annie).

The playbill contains a letter of endorsement from the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, commending Fish for being “bold, and yes, risky.” I suggest considering this production (which will surely provoke divisive reactions) from a similar point of view and accepting it as a far from definitive but refreshing “Oklahoma!”

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