At the scaled-down, reimagined production of “Oklahoma!” at St. Ann’s Warehouse, they didn’t give us the program until after the musical was over – one of the several signs that director Daniel Fish sees his version as cutting-edge, and wants us to see it that way too. In a traditional show, they give you the program before the show begins.
“Oklahoma!” has been a traditional show for decades. Yes, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s first musical was considered groundbreaking when it debuted on Broadway, but that was 75 years ago.
Fish clearly felt it time to break new ground. What’s sprung from that broken ground is decidedly mixed.
Foremost on the plus side is an inclusive 11-member cast of great talent. Chief among the stand-outs is Rebecca Naomi Jones in the role of Laurey Williams, a beautiful farm gal in Oklahoma Territory in 1906 who is being courted by two men, the cowboy Curley McLain (a guitar-playing Damon Daunno) and the outcast, lonely farm hand Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill.) Although primarily known for her powerhouse singing in rock musicals (Passing Strange, American Idiot, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) those of us who have seen Jones perform in non-musical plays over the last few years (Big Love, Describe the Night, Fire in Dreamland), know her acting has a persuasive, grounded quality that prevents the audience from dismissing her Laurey as simply an appealing ingénue.
Also impressive is Ali Stroker (Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, Glee) as the fun-loving Ado Annie, in the parallel, and lighter story of her courtship by two men, her true love Will Parker (James Davis) and the immigrant peddler Ali Hakim (Michael Nathanson) whom she uses to make Will jealous. Rather than implicitly asking the audience to ignore Stroker’s wheelchair, it is incorporated into the choreography in ways that enhance the merriment and further elucidate her character.
If almost all the performers have glorious voices, each is obviously directed to act as naturalistic as possible.
The cast has been pared down (the original Broadway production had more than 50 performers) and in place of the 28-piece orchestra for which the score was written, a seven-piece band plays Daniel Kluger’s new, apt country music-flavored arrangements, which include a lively banjo and a mean mandolin. The band is placed at one end of the stage as if the neighborhood band at a community shindig.
The production generally strives to take out the hokey, and add in the homey: The interior has been redesigned to evoke a community get-together, complete with long wooden picnic tables that line the stage and pots of chili, shared with the theatergoers during intermission. To drive home where and when this community gathering is taking place, racks of rifles hang on the plain wooden planks that serve as the walls.
In all this, the director seems to be asking us for a trade-off — the sacrifice of the familiar sweep and grandeur of the musical in exchange for a you-are-there believability.
Yet, as admirable as some of the director’s bold concepts, their execution, at the worst, seems to lose sight of a theater’s basic compact with the audience.
In its effort to make the environment feel authentic, the show suggests low-budget community theater as much as small town community gathering: The folding wooden chairs are physically uncomfortable, and the seating on either side of a long narrow stage (which looks like a fashion runway, except it’s made out of unfinished wood) nearly guarantees obstructed views at various times for a large portion of the audience. The director’s commitment to naturalism sometimes comes at the expense of audibility. Whole scenes unfold in complete darkness.
This is a technique I’ve seen before: Director Sam Gold turned off the lights for scenes in his production of Othello. (Gold’s set also involved uncomfortable wooden seating for the audience.) There are also a few moments in Fish’s “Oklahoma!” of live video feed, which is a specialty of director Ivo van Hove. At one moment, boots drop from the ceiling one by one with an alarming BOOM. And then there’s Gabrielle Hamilton, wearing nothing but a long, iridescent t-shirt with the words “Dream Baby Dream,” who does an interpretive modern dance for 15 minutes at the top of Act II. She’s eventually joined by other dancers (from the NYU Tisch School of the Art and Juilliard), all also wearing “Dream Baby Dream” t-shirts, all of whom are (I’m guessing) either imitating cowboys on horses or the horses themselves. I was lost at how this connected to the story, or to Agnes de Mille’s original choreography. (de Mille’s famous 15-minute ballet was a re-creation in dance of Laurey’s torment in trying to decide between Curly and Jud.)
Not all these touches are annoying; some are engaging, taken in isolation. More disturbing is the violent ending, significantly changed from what Oscar Hammerstein wrote. I might have been more wholly accepting of this radical alteration, and of the inconveniences of the set-up, if I didn’t see Fish as in part swapping aspects of one tradition (the way Oklahoma is usually presented) for elements of another — avant-garde, hip and literally inaccessible; what other production of “Oklahoma” has ever posted the announcement “Due to mature content, only children over the age of 12 will be admitted.”?
If you’re going to do an unconventional “Oklahoma!”, at least do one that keeps the optimism that is at the heart of this musical and tries something that’s bold but also original and completely coherent, such as the production currently running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where all the couples are gay or lesbian, and Laurey’s aunt is transsexual.
St. Ann’s Warehouse
Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein Ii
Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs
Original choreography by Agnes de Mille
Directed by Daniel Fish
Choreography by John Heginbotham
New Music Arrangements by Daniel Kluger
Cast: Damon Daunno as Curly McLain; Mary Testa as Aunt Eller; Rebecca Naomi Jones as Laurey Williams; James Davis as Will Parker; Patrick Vaill as Jud Fry; Ali Stroker as Ado Annie; Michael Nathanson as Ali Hakim; Mitch Tebo as Annie’s father Andrew Carnes; Mallory Portnoy as Gertie et al; Anthony Cason as Cord Elam; Gabrielle Hamilton as lead dancer
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes including one intermission
Tickets “begin at $41” but the run appears to be sold out.
“Oklahoma!” is on stage through November 11, 2018