Director Daniel Fish has taken Rodgers and Hammerstein’s groundbreaking Oklahoma! and, in a manner of speaking, broken new ground with it. The musical remains evergreen, yes; but over the last 40 years of revivals it has accumulated a bit of must, in the moldy term of the word. Certainly, the bright and effervescent Agnes de Mille dances with all those maidens lifting their hands to the heavens—either carefully recreated, or newly choreographed in the prescribed style—tend to make traditional productions evocatively quaint but uninvolving.
Fish takes care of that, all right. This Oklahoma! retains the material, mostly, but layers it with what might be considered modern-day psychology. Let us say at the outset that the production indeed makes the show relevant and involving, and that Fish & Co. do exceedingly well by Rodgers. Given the success of so much of the goings-on, it must be added that the director’s most severe changes, four of them, neither help nor enhance what R&H wrought. They don’t sink the experiment, fortunately; this Oklahoma! is altogether something to see. But to this reviewer, these choices are what Oscar used to call “a puzzlement,” etcetera etcetera and so forth.
The director has whittled the original cast of 56 down to 12. No complaints here; the drama is suitably rendered, even if the principals—when in theory offstage—pitch in singing the chorus parts. The original 28-piece band has been cut to a country-folk group of seven, all strings save conductor Nathan Koci, who plays snare drum and accordion. A country band makes a certain amount of sense for this cowboy musical, you might concede, especially when you factor in leading man Curly (Damon Daunno) as a singing cowboy-with-geetar. In this case, most surprisingly, they don’t play like a typical country band; orchestrator Daniel Kluger has woven just about every Rodgers countermelody into the piece. Thus, Rodgers’ work—even without harp, trumpets and trombones—is very much present.
Oscar fares worse, alas. Two scenes, both featuring the villain Jud, are played entirely in the dark. Yes, in the dark. Dialogue is retained, but what is happening is unknown to anyone other than Mr. Fish. There are a couple of hints that they are suggesting hardcore sexual activities under cover of darkness. But only hints; if the director does indeed have something to add to the story, it might have been braver to be more decisive. (One of these signals—a performer emerging from the darkness with clothing conspicuously undone—is likely visible to only a third of the audience, due to challenging sightlines.)
There is also a significant alteration to the climactic fight between Curly the cowhand and Jud the farmer; we won’t describe it, so as not to spoil the moment for future audiences, but this change thoroughly alters Hammerstein’s plot and intentions. If it improved the work, then one might salute the director’s brave choice (as with Sam Mendes’ production of Cabaret). But what use are changes that alter the meaning of the show without improving the work?
Most puzzling is the handling of the famous dream ballet. One does not raise an eyebrow when the piece is omitted, even though it is the driving reason for Laurey to reject Curly and go off with Jud as the first act curtain falls. I mean, how could they include a dream ballet under these stripped-down conditions? After the St. Ann’s staff dishes out an intermission snack of chili and cornbread to the audience, the second act begins with—what?—the dream ballet, albeit a one-girl ballet. We know it is a dream ballet because the impressively acrobatic Gabrielle Hamilton wears a white shirt upon which is emblazoned “dream baby dream.” Then, it’s on with the show; except Laurey has already gone to the picnic with Jud at the end of act one, before this second act dream ballet that psychologically impels her to do so. Puzzling; and even more puzzling is that at two brief points in the ballet, nine additional “dream baby dream” dancers enter, cross the stage, and exit never to return (not even for curtain calls). There’s a considerable dance ensemble on hand, and they are only used for two minutes?
Daunno does well as the singing cowboy, with his sweetly high voice working well except in the title song, which sounds ungrounded without the strong baritone Rodgers intended. (Kudos to Kluger and Koci for retaining the grand “O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A” vocal arrangement, and finding a way to make it sound so good with a fraction of the necessary voices.) Rebecca Naomi Jones is a psychologically conflicted Laurey; Patrick Vaill makes a very different sort of Jud, slight of figure but properly and frighteningly neurotic; James David brightens the proceedings as a slow-thinking Will Parker, back from Kansas City; and Michael Nathanson makes a much-better-than-usual Persian peddler man.
Ali Stroker, who received a good deal of attention when she performed in the recent Spring Awakening revival, fires on all cylinders as Ado Annie; the fact that she is in a wheelchair is altogether forgotten once she launches into “I Cain’t Say No.” Perhaps most valuable is Mary Testa as the ever-present conscience of the piece, Aunt Eller. When Oklahoma! first opened on Broadway, the actress playing Eller received first billing. That always seemed odd but watching the way Testa drives this production, it makes a good deal more sense.
Ever-inventive designer Laura Jellinek has split her bunkhouse playing area into a cowboy side (with 50 rifles on the wall racks) and a farmer side (with flowing fields and painted corn stalks). Let it be mentioned that she seems to pay distinct homage to the original Broadway production, with the back wall featuring a distant farmhouse which appears to be replicated from Lemuel Ayers’ Skidmore Ranch drop from 1943.
For the most part, Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!—which was first staged at Bard Summerscape in 2015—is a grand success and well worth visiting. The severe alteration of Hammerstein’s intent, though, argues against allowing it to become an authorized version.
Oklahoma! opened Oct. 7, 2018, at St. Ann’s Warehouse and runs through Nov. 11. Tickets and information: stannswarehouse.org