By Paige Allen
July 18, 2019
Director Daniel Fish’s production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! has developed a reputation as Broadway’s badboy. While the production won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical this June, the gritty take on the Golden Age classic has downright offended some of its viewers with its irreverence toward traditions surrounding the musical. Oscar Hammerstein II’s grandson called the show “a travesty” and said, “They would be rolling in their graves if they saw this current production that defies what the words meant and what the songs represented.”
What words mean to a person or what songs represent to an audience, however, are slippery and changeable, even when ingrained in a canon like those of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The freedom to interpret art with fresh eyes allows Fish and his team to be accused of betraying Oklahoma! without changing a single word of its original script or lyrics.
If you’re upset by Fish’s production, isn’t that kind of the point? Despite the yummy chili and cornbread served at intermission, this Oklahoma! is not supposed to go down easy. Fish has uprooted a foundational American musical to expose its dark underbelly, and the disturbing truths festering there are not a pretty sight.
Oklahoma! is not a “sit back and relax” kind of show. A collection of guns hangs ominously on the white walls of Circle in the Square. The audience sits on three sides of the playing space and at onstage table seating (scenic design by Laura Jellinek). Much of the production is performed with the lights on, removing any darkness the audience could use to separate ourselves from the world of the play. We’re definitely a part of, and complicit in, whatever we witness.
Perhaps the biggest change to the original Oklahoma! material is the reorchestration of the score by Daniel Kluger (music direction and additional vocal arrangements by Nathan Koci). The sound of the show has been transformed into something intimate and raw. The band sits on stage throughout the piece and interacts with the actors who sing with a rough, country twang, loud enough to compensate for the removal of a full Broadway chorus (another big change, and honestly, I don’t miss the ensemble for a second).
The story of Oklahoma! is simple: Curly McLain (understudy Denver Milord at the performance I attended), a charismatic and confident young man who sings in a velvety tenor and accompanies himself on the guitar, has his sights set on Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and wants her to be his date to the box social, although he and Laurey are in a Benedick-and-Beatrice-like battle as each attempts to appear less interested in the other. Upset with Curley, Laurey instead agrees to go to the box social with Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill), the reclusive farmhand, despite the fear she feels around him.
On a basic level, Oklahoma! is about a girl trying to figure out what she wants. Immortalized by Shirley Jones in the film adaptation, Laurey traditionally is the picture of the Broadway ingenue: young and naive, singing in a saccharine soprano. Jones’s pants-wearing Laurey has sass and edge, belting her songs as she longs for answers. The dream ballet which opens Act Two, rewired as contemporary performance art by John Heginbotham’s choreography and Kluger’s reorchestrations, features only one dancer (understudy Demetia Hopkins-Greene at the production I saw) in a sequined shirt which reads “DREAM BABY DREAM.” She is a fantasy Laurey, free to explore her desires as her real-world counterpart is not.
(Did I understand the dream ballet? Nope, not much. Was I shocked or offended that Laurey’s opium-induced trip lacked clear narrative or structure? Not at all.)
Meanwhile, in the subplot, Ado Annie (Ali Stroker) is caught between two men of her own: her old beau Will Parker (James Davis) and the peddler Ali Hakim (Will Brill). Annie is much happier with her love triangle than Laurey, so long as she gets a marriage out of it, and Stroker’s explosive performance of “I Cain’t Say No” might well steal the show.
For all the controversy surrounding it, Oklahoma! does not really cross into the realm of “radical” until the second act. Other than some strong choices with lighting (by Scott Zielinksi) to show the hypnotic effect Curly has on Laurey, most of Act One is a stripped down, modern dress version of the original. Ali Hakim’s song “It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage!” and the scene before it buzz with uneasiness — you can hear it in the music — but the reality of the threatened violence has not sunk in yet.
The exception is the scene between Curly and Jud. Here, the theater is plunged into darkness, and we can only listen as Curly encourages Jud to hang himself. As the pair sings “Pore Jud Is Daid,” Curly’s manipulative song about how wonderful it would be for Jud if he committed suicide, a close-up live shot of Jud’s face is projected on the wall in black and white. We see the smile on his lips and the tears on his cheeks as Jud imagines people caring about him at his funeral. The shot widens to include Curly, his face close to Jud’s as if he is breathing poison into the other man’s mouth. Jud, like Laurey, can fall under the spell of Curly’s siren song.
That audiences ever condoned Curly’s extended mental manipulation of Jud is appalling.
It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for Jud—not only in this scene but also during the auction in Act Two, when he willingly gives up everything he has only to be outdone by Curly in a display of masculine domination supported by a community which would much prefer Jud remain an outsider.
Certainly, Jud is flawed. We can understand why Laurey fears him, especially after an uncomfortable encounter between the pair in Act Two, also staged in complete darkness, in which we hear Jud begin to take off his belt before Laurey breaks away. Jud is no hero.
But in this Oklahoma!, no one is.
Especially not Curly, who normally gets treated like one. When Curly kills Jud, it is with a gun, not a knife as originally staged, a choice which reflects a specific plague afflicting America and darkly recasts the moments of threatened gun violence throughout the musical that the audience still tries to laugh off. Jud dies defenseless and unarmed, surrounded by bystanders who do nothing—including the audience.
The minutes which follow, led by a now-sinister Aunt Eller (Mary Testa), justify the existence of this version of Oklahoma!. Curly—privileged in so many ways—gets away with murder without so much as a slap on the wrist. As the company breaks out into what is meant to be a joyous reprise of “Oklahoma!,” we feel like Laurey, stunned and reeling from what she has witnessed, able only to thrash her body to the music and look soundlessly and searchingly at the audience as the cast sings around her.
As much work as the cast and crew of Oklahoma! have done, they have not created the darkness driving their production. That creature was birthed a long time ago, and it’s part of a deep, noxious web of violence, prejudice, and fear embedded in our culture, stretching far beyond the theatre and always bubbling just below the surface. Eight times a week, Oklahoma! forces its audience to face it, if only for three hours. That makes some people uncomfortable.
Good. We should be.
BCS-friendliness rating: 2 out 5 stars
Oklahoma! is a hot button show, so I paid $111.50 (including fees) on TodayTix a little over a month in advance for my seat. Tickets are technically available from $69 through TodayTix, but only for one day in October (which will disappear soon), so it’s likely you’ll be paying at least as much as I did unless you hop on buying a ticket when they first get released about three months in advance and can snag them while they’re a bit cheaper on TodayTix.
Luckily, Circle in the Square is a great theater because no one is far away from the action. No matter where you sit, you’ll have some scenes where you’re staring at someone’s back for awhile, but that’s the nature of a three-quarter round. Sitting at one of the tables, though? That’ll cost you a purty penny.
Update: You can read a slightly longer and slightly different version of this review published in The Nassau Weekly. The changes are a result of work with an editor in preparation for publication in their summer issue.