Richard Rodgers—who succeeded 19th-century waltz king Johann Strauss as 20th-century waltz king—was known to be a stickler about his music. He composed it just so and expected it to be played just so, often trusting orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett to establish the official Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II sound.
So it might be he’d have some trouble with Daniel Fish’s take-as-many-liberties-as-you-like Oklahoma!, at St. Ann’s Warehouse after a 2015 intro at Bard College. Fish’s version has a cast reduced from the original 50-plus to 12 (with an additional 10-member Dream Ballet troupe). It boasts a seven-piece band, conducted by man-of-many instruments Nathan Koci, interpreting Daniel Kruger arrangements that from time to time veer into country-western. (Okay, the musical adaptation of Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs does take place in the West when Oklahoma hadn’t yet graduated from territory to 1907 statehood.)
But if Rodgers might have taken umbrage, the rest of us could have a different reaction to the second Hammerstein work that revolutionized the Great American Musical. The 1927 Show Boat was the first, Jerome Kern the composer.
Today, we may excuse the changes on what could be termed a wide-corridor transformation. That’s to say, in a large wooden box, designed by Laura Jellinek, the audience sits on two sides of a wide corridor along which the cast members perform—often just sitting on several folding chairs scattered about. The musicians perch in a dropped rectangle space at one end.
It may be we’re happy to take this Oklahoma! in as having been washed, scrubbed and set out to dry in the sun and the lemon-scented air. Or as Theodore S. Chapin, R&H president and chief creative officer says in his program letter, it’s time for a “modern view” of the 75-year-old classic. Of course, others of us might think that Oklahoma! (with that all-important exclamation point) is timeless and that anything timeless doesn’t need a modern view.
But I say why not? Oklahoma! remains completely intact on the R&H shelves, and the 1943 production can even be replicated, as it was not too many years ago under then North Carolina School of the Arts dean-conductor John Mauceri, who even brought in original Oklahoma! dancer Gemze de Lappe to recreate Agnes de Mille’s trend-setting choreography.
Sure, there’s much to enjoy about this often-understated presentation—all that sitting and bantering. It’s a swell idea to have Curly (Damon Daunno) enter accompanying himself on guitar as he sings “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” That opening solo was a shocker in 1943, but how could it have the same cliché-shattering effect now?
Turning it into a partial ensemble number has its virtues. And from start to finish the 12 cast members sing their hearts out on a score that reminds us—as the Rodgers and Hammerstein Carousel revival reminded us earlier this year—what a superb score sounds like. If we don’t live in a time when a ballad like “People Will Say We’re in Love” reflects the zeitgeist, that’s a shame. (Oklahoma! debuted in the midst of the World War II and served as a reminder of the peaceful country worth fighting for.)
Yes, these Oklahoma! troupe members sing their hearts out because this is a score with heart. That’s something we simply don’t get as a matter of course these conflicted 21st-century days. Rebecca Naomi Jones as a Laurey with a nicely curled tongue and offsetting grace, Mary Testa as an Aunt Eller with no time for nonsense and a voice of astonishing control, Ali Stroker as a wheel-chair daredevil Ado Annie with abundant ado, Patrick Vaill as a Jud Fry with a lean eye and a sad manner, Michael Nathanson as an Ali Hakim with a flim-flam man’s sleekness—all of them give this Oklahoma! an itching-for-statehood vim. No slackers in the rest of the small crowd, either.
An example of other production merits? Fish uses one very current theatrical amenity: projections. When Curly goes to visit Jud in his squalid shack with the intention of having the farmhand drop the idea of taking Laurey to the box social, the wooden box—which up until then has been bursting with designer Scott Zielinski’s bright light—goes dark. Suddenly, Curly and Jud appear in intimate close-up on a far wall. They’re singing the sinister “Pore Jud.” Daunno’s delivery and, especially, Vaill’s sensitive range of hopeful expressions, constitute many directorial/acting pluses.
Because the Oklahoma! of the Good War can be considered elusive in 2018, there’s something to be said for acknowledging the more dangerous contemporary Trumpian climate. (Yes, WWII was dangerous, but not necessarily as experienced stateside). The way this more modern view is dealt with in Fish’s closing moments won’t be described here, but it’s effective, all right.
And speaking of Agnes de Mille: Her “Out of My Dreams” ballet, which represents Laurey trying to grapple with tangled romantic feelings, might be considered by those who know it as inextricable from the entire great work. Nevertheless, it’s been excised. Jack Heginbotham has created a new ballet with Laurey danced by supple Gabrielle Hamilton. She wears a shimmering T-shirt on which is written “Dream Baby Dream.”
Hamilton is joined—only twice?—by a group of galloping women garbed as she is. They do replicate some de Mille steps. Occasionally, Daunno and Vaill peek through doors, but the worlds swirling in de Mille’s vision isn’t repeated here. They’re missed. Perhaps others won’t mind, they certainly won’t if they don’t know the original.
Is this an Oklahoma! for our times? It’s indisputably an Oklahoma! of our times, and in this instance that rates as a fair-enough positive.
Oklahoma! opened October 7, 2018, at St. Ann’s Warehouse and runs through November 11. Tickets and information: stannswarehouse.org