Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Review of "Oklahoma!"

Director Daniel Fish’s revisionist take on the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Oklahoma!, is a vibrant, more modern rendering of the ground-breaking musical.  Not everything the production has to offer works effectively, but there is enough on stage to reinvigorate and propel the show to satisfying heights.

Even before the first strands of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” echo throughout the intimate Circle in the Square Theater, the look and feel of the performance space signals this version of Oklahoma! will be different. There is an onstage country band within the minimal set design.  Six foot tables surround the floor and crockpots, cooking vegetarian chili (to be served at intermission), sit atop each table.  The house lights stay on, in a way signaling to the audience that they will be a part of the show.

When Curly enters, he doesn’t lazily warble the opening number, but almost assaults the verse as he playfully sings and flirts with Aunt Eller.  Intermittently strumming the guitar, the character, with unkempt, straggly black hair, and a slight beard and moustache, begins his unorthodox wooing of Laurey, the unimpressed niece who resides with Aunt Eller.  On the surface, the plot is relatively simple.  Who will take Laurey to the box social that night—Curly or the somewhat menacing, socially awkward farm hand Judd Fry.  The conflict and enmity between the two men is palpable, which leads to, in this production, an unsatisfying ending.  As with most Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, the secondary leads provide comic distraction.  Here, Ado Annie, a woman who can’t say no to a pretty face and Will Parker, who comes across as a cornball simpleton, fills the bill.  There is also the exotic peddler, Ali Hakim, adding a degree of distraction to the relationship. 

The Rodgers and Hammerstein score, which contains so many noteworthy and recognizable songs, has been beautifully and vigorously orchestrated by Daniel Kluger.  Purists may gripe, but the cobwebs from such memorable numbers as "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin',” "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” "I Cain't Say No,” "People Will Say We're in Love,” and the title number are reinvigorated and given a new, contemporary sheen.  I can’t wait for the cast album to be released.

The cast is led by Damon Daunno as Curly McLain.  He is lanky, self-assured, and irascible.  The actor conveys a down home charm, but also a smothering passion.  His contempt of Jud is more overt and odious.  Rebecca Naomi Jones is more straightforward in her interpretation of Laurey Williams, not as layered as the other primary characters.  Patrick Vaill’s Jud Fry is disturbing and creepy.  Usually played by burly types, the actor is slight of build and a brooding jumble of suppressed emotions.  Ali Stoker’s Ado Annie is more a woman of today who knows what she desires and makes no bones about getting it.  Her rendition of “I Cain’t Say No” is more an anthem of female empowerment then an apologetic lament.  James Davis plays Will Parker as too much the fool and Will Brill makes a colorful, beguiling and knavish Ali Hakim.  Mary Testa is a more direct, in-your-face Aunt Eller. 

Director Fish has conceived a production which is entertaining, artsy, and also challenging.  What is interesting is the original book and lyrics have not been altered.  The emphasis, pacing, and delivery of the text is seen through a different light, one that is darker and more sexually charged.  Some aspects of his vision work exquisitely such as employing a country band to reinterpret the score and making some unconventional, but successful, casting choices.  Some of the directorial decisions are perplexing such as the two blackout moments during the production.  The end of the musical will be the source of much debate and questioning. The dream sequence that starts Act II is a pulsating, wildly choreographed modern dance number by John Heginbotham.  Audience members not familiar with the famous Agnes de Mille dream sequence and how it fits into and expands upon the plot, will be somewhat bewildered no matter what one thinks of Gabrielle Hamilton’s athletically charged performance.

Oklahoma!, flawed, but well-worth seeing.

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