OKLAHOMA! (2019)

Last night I went to see “Oklahoma!” I got inside the theater, but didn’t see anything resembling the real Rodgers and Hammerstein achievement that in 1943 captivated audiences and set a new standard for musical theater. I saw only a crass hint offered in director Daniel Fish’s down-home reduction. Yes, the familiar songs are there, sometimes well sung, but not with the glorious staging with a full orchestra and the excitement of various productions seen in the past. (See Search for one example.) Fish just gives us a seven-member country-style band (no reflection on the talent of the musicians). Worse, he has darkened the musical with a bloody misconceived, gunshot climax that turns what was an accidental death into a supposedly mercy murder. To be sure, some of the performers excel.

Rodgers and Hammerstein provided a treasure trove of songs, including “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey with the Fringe On Top,” “Kansas City,” “I Cain’t Say No,” “Many a New Day,” ‘Pore Jud Is Daid,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “Al Er Nuthin’,” and, of course the title song. Fish gets them in, but the overall magic is absent. Curiously, the Playbill doesn’t even list the songs, as is generally done for musicals.

Let’s start at the outset. One walks into a brightly lit, gaily decorated theater, but along the walls are many batches of rifles. That in itself is a tasteless design that flies in the face of current widespread desire for gun-control and de-emphasis on weaponry in our country. And it hardly has any relevance to what we see, except for the ultimate shooting.

Fish and scenic designer Laura Jellinek have lines of tables in front of first row audience members. Atop the tables are pots containing chili (chili and cornbread are served to the audience during intermission). The idea is to create a homey, community atmosphere. The story mostly unfolds along the basic corny plotline of the original, with the music by Richard Rodgers and the book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs.

Damon Daunno tries to look sexy as the leading man, cowboy Curly McClain, here strumming a guitar, but his acting lacks charm, although he sings well. (Think of the charismatic actors who have played the role—Alfred Drake, Howard Keel and Hugh Jackman). Rebecca Naomi Jones as Laurey Williams sings better than she acts in the role of the woman over whom Curley and Patrick Vaill as farmhand Jud Fry compete. (Dynamic performers who have played Laurey include Joan Roberts, Christine Andreas and Shirley Jones.)

The most sensational person in the cast is Ali Stroker, who as Ado Annie is a sexy knockout singing “I Cain’t Say No” and does a fine job of making the character come alive. Scooting impressively about in her wheelchair, immensely appealing Stroker steals the show.

James Davis is amusing as Will Parker, who is nuts over Ado Annie. As for roving peddler Ali Hakim, who is supposed to be Persian, Will Brill with his country twang is like one of the local entourage with nothing more Persian about him than the rest. Mary Testa, always the pro, does a nice job as Aunt Eller, consistently talking common sense.

One of the most memorable aspects of the original “Oklahoma!” was the choreography by Agnes de Mille, including her fabled dream ballet in which a dancer elegantly evokes the imagination of Laurey’s conflicted feelings about Curly and Jud.

The ballet, if one could dignify it by using the word, in the second act opening of Fish’s production is an absolute atrocity (choreography by John Heginbotham). Gabrielle Hamilton, wearing a shiny white mini emblazoned on the front with the words “Dream Baby Dream,” gallops along like a horse. She does all sorts of ugly moves and body contortions, including crawling along the floor, and the assault on the audience seems to go on forever. Gone is Agnes de Mille’s beautiful vision.

Fish uses various gimmicks, such as a suddenly darkened stage, dialogue in the dark and projections on the back wall, including a face-to-face confrontation between Curly and Jud. The biggest descent into a dark conception is the final confrontation between Curly and Jud on the occasion of Curly's and Laurey's wedding. (I don’t care about a spoiler—this must be described.) In the original show Jud comes after Curly with a knife and in the struggle accidentally falls on it. In Fish’s ugly switch there is a tense standoff between Jud and Curly. Jud, feeling totally forlorn, gives Curly a gun and wants to be shot. Curly aims the gun, stares for a while and then fires. Much blood is spattered all over Curly and Laurey, who stand there while Jud falls to the ground mortally wounded.

Directors are often tempted to do their own interpretations of classics. Fish succeeds in giving us “Oklahoma!” the way he wants to. But what’s going on here loses what made the music and dance-filled original so captivating. Instead we have a smart-alecky contemporary misfire that, giving us the musical’s famous songs in a minimal, distorted context that hardly looks like 1906 Oklahoma, insults the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Their musical exalted the optimism of Oklahoma as it was about to become a state. This production ultimately exalts the gun violence of 2019. At the Circle in the Square, 50th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed April 12, 2019.

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