We’ve seen OKLAHOMA! many times before, but never like director Daniel Fish’s startling version at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Fearless, provocative and totally unconventional this OKLAHOMA!, might well be seen as boldly innovative as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 production, regarded as the first “modern musical” to integrate fully book, action, music and dance. With white-hot textual focus, exciting new country /western musical arrangements and daring production technique, Fish has re-examined this all-American musical fable, exposing a darker essence. What’s more there’s more raw power from Fish’s cast of 11 and band of 7 in Brooklyn than there often is in full casts and orchestras on Broadway.
As he did at Bard Summerscape where this OKLAHOMA! premiered in the summer of 2015 (and where I saw it twice), Fish, with scenic designer Laura Jellinek, has transformed the Steinberg Theater at the Warehouse into an old-fashioned Grange Hall. Fringed banners hang from the ceiling. Racks of shotguns decorate raw plywood walls. The configuration is an alley stage with five tiers of seating either side, with the front row audience seated at church tables. The small band is in a shallow pit at one end. Chili crockpots - with real chili dot - the tables. Aunt Eller’s Jiffy Mix recipe for cornbread (executed while in song by the wonderful Mary Testa) gets served at intermission with the chili, but that’s the least novel aspect of the production. The lunch is a theatrical device to suggest community, a theme central in Hammerstein’s book and a notion that Fish’s plumbs to subversive effect. The year is 1906. On the verge of “modernity” the territory of Oklahoma awaits statehood to the Union, but land conflicts still pit farmers and ranchers. Bachelor rancher Curly has his sights on “nice girl” farm owner Laurey. Her Aunt Eller overseas the farm, tended by Jud, a strange loner, who lives in the smokehouse. Like Curly, he wants Laurey. In contrast to Laurey, Ado Annie is the town flirt, who is wooed by Jud’s fellow rancher Will but at the same time entertains Ali, a Turkish, traveling dry goods salesman. Ado Annie is all for fun and therein lies most of OKLAHOMA!’s lightness and laughs, which Fish doesn’t ignore. But the tragedy implicit in the Curley- Laurey-Jud triangle is the fulcrum of Fish’s interpretation of Hammerstein’s book.
The very first, familiar notes of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” signal how distinctive this OKLAHOMA! is. Instead of lofty violins, a banjo plucks, joined by mandolin, bass, guitar, and fiddle. Rodgers’ score is full of folk music influences, but in these new, crisp orchestrations by Daniel Kluger, favorite Broadway melodies sound as if newly composed, strummed by bluegrass legends. Vocal interpretations follow suit, especially in twangy renditions of “I Can’t Say No”, “Kansas City” and “All Er Nothin'.”
But it’s in the romantic ballads where the steely musical adaptations reveal a rawness and sexuality unexplored before. As the stanzas progress in “Surrey With the Fringe on Top”, Kluger’s musical arrangements take Curley and Laurey’s aloof flirtation from jaunty clip/clop tempo to a slow, hold-your-breath state of suspended seduction as Curly’s head moves in for a nuzzled caress of Laurey’s arched neck. Gordon McRae and Shirley Jones never played it like this in the movie. Nor ever before were Curly and Laurey a bi-racial couple.
A repressed, prurient variant of sexuality surfaces menacingly in the character of hired-hand Jud, who challenges cowhand Curly for Laurey’s affection. This OKLAHOMA!’s Jud isn’t the beefy, muscled brut. As brilliantly played by Patrick Vaill, he’s more a greasy-haired punk, progenitor of the lone wolf in today’s headlines. He’s the outsider lurking at the community edge, dwelling in squalor on Laurey’s farm. When Curley visits Jud’s hovel to challenge him over Laurey, director Fish plunges us into Jud’s den - into the dark, literally. Lights go out and projected live on the end wall of the theater -in tight close-up via infrared camera - are Curly and Jud alone, sitting cross -legged, face-to-face, man-to-man. Curly, exploiting Jud’s insecurities, croons “Poor Jud is Daid”. Jud rejoins, wallowing in self-pity, with “Lonely Room”. The “duet” is foreboding and eerie. It's the most psychologically arresting scene I've ever witnessed in a musical, marking the inevitability of Jud’s fate and, by way of its intimacy, Curly’s complicity in it. It’s almost if Curly has seduced Jud into his own demise.
The new choreography by Mark Morris-trained John Heginbotham flows functionally from the text. Most playful is cowhand Will, played by a lanky James Davis full of Jimmy Stewart charm, leaping over crockpots of chili on the church tables. Dance springs naturalistically from song, most evident in the sprightly square dance to “The Rancher and the Cowman”.
But the most radical choreography (and biggest change from the original production at Bard) is the dream dance sequence. Laurey, to relieve her stress over the mounting tension between Curly and Jud, takes a “magic potion” (a mix of opium and morphine) which she buys from Ali, the salesman. The dream induced imagines her life with either Curly or Jud and prophesizes Jud’s death. Heginrbotham’s choreography is over-the-top Agnes DeMille, taking the surreal aspects of the watershed 1943 sequence to sexual nightmare. Musical arranger Kluger provides a harsh, electronic score that modulates the traditionally light melodies and motifs of “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ “ and “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” into a pastiche of loud, ominous dissonance. Dancer Gabrielle Hamilton executes a solo ballet that is both carnal and violent. She’s clad in a white T-shirt dress, trimmed in sequins, labeled in black block letters “Dream Baby Dream”, joined episodically by a “posse” of over a dozen female dancers, clad the same, who clip-clop in galloping patterns across the stage.
Lighting designer Scott Zielinski intensifies the mood shifts between everyday public townsfolk activity to Laurey and Curly’s internal dynamics abruptly, shifting from drenching the stage in the bright sunlight of the Western plain to painting intimate scenes in dusty, golden-green. Costumes by Terese Wadden combine timeless elements of Western outdoor gear and all-American workaday clothes. At the box social, men don a version of Sunday best. At the square dance, fancy women’s skirts combine the girliness of party dresses with the womanliness of saloon dancer’s petticoats.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Particularly impressive as Laurey is Rebecca Naomi Jones who transforms the romantic standard “Out of My Dreams” into a narcotic lullaby with goosebump effect to close Act I. The willowy Damon Daunno plays Curly as more the ordinary-but-kinda-cute-guy-next-door than movie-star stud. The full-throated Mary Testa, with just the right notes of wise-ass authority, is a perfect Aunt Eller, the cool, practical observer of tragedy festering in her community. The biggest casting change from the Bard production is Ali Stroker, who made history as the first actor in a wheel chair on a Broadway stage in Deaf West’s revival of “Spring Awakening”. As Ado Annie, she combines perkiness and naughtiness perfectly, almost stealing the show with “I Can’t Say No” and then with James Davis as Will in “All Er Nothin’ “.
The most controversial aspect of this OKLAHOMA! is the staging of the death of Jud and Curly's part in it. Fish's dramatic license (which was approved by the Hammerstein literary estate) makes plain Jud’s murder is deliberately committed by Curly, though Jud is willful of it. Narratively, Jud’s demise is inevitable; psychologically, it’s fulfillment of a tacit murder/suicide pact. Aunt Eller makes sure, in Wild West fashion, that a self-defense verdict gets dispatched and quick. The outsider is eliminated, wrong is righted, justice gets rendered, community endures, order prevails, good triumphs over bad. Is it that pure and simple? Listen carefully to the undertones in the title song in its reprise rendition for the powerful finale. This OKLAHOMA! asks anew if “the land we belong to is grand”.
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