Oklahoma Review: Still Hip and Homey, But Better on Broadway!

I’m grateful for having first seen Daniel Fish’s dark, hip and homey production of “Oklahoma!” at St. Ann’s Warehouse last year, because I can see how much improved it is now that it has transferred to Broadway. They kept what I liked about it, and got rid of much of what I found most annoying.

I had two main objections. I felt the director was replacing one hoary tradition, hokey Broadway musical conventions, with hip avant-garde trends that have become just as familiar to New York theatergoers. I also saw the production as violating a theater’s basic compact with the audience (presumably in the name of authenticity) by having us sit in uncomfortable folding wooden chairs, in a reconstructed theater with obstructed views, and whole scenes playing out in complete darkness.

On Broadway, set designer Laura Jellinek has reconstructed the Circle in the Square Theater in much the way she did at St. Ann’s, to evoke a rural community get-together circa 1906, with raw wood planking for the walls and the floors, and racks of guns and pots of chili (served during intermission.) but the Broadway theater has comfortable seats and decent sightlines. They also give the playbill to you before the show begins, rather than after it is over, as at St. Ann’s — an affectation that to me epitomized the gratuitous  efforts to be au courant.

It’s true they’ve kept the incongruous dream ballet sequence by dancer Gabrielle Hamilton, dressed in nothing but a long, iridescent t-shirt with the words “Dream Baby Dream.” But they’ve cut the ludicrous addition of dancers from the NYU Tisch School of the Art and Juilliard, all also wearing “Dream Baby Dream” t-shirts, who joined Hamilton in what appeared to be an imitation of a herd of galloping horses.  And, at least now, the characters are present in the second half of the dance, so that we can pretend it has something to do with the story. The show also still features  two scenes in darkness, as well as moments of live video feed, and the blood-soaked finale.

But the balance has shifted, and I could enjoy this “Oklahoma” without much reservation.

Whether you can too depends on whether you view this musical the same way that I do.  However groundbreaking the show was in 1943 for incorporating the songs and dance into the story (and getting rid of the standard chorus of dancing girls), what makes it stand out now for me are its beloved songs.

I just don’t buy the idea that Hammerstein’s book offers deep and enduring insights into American society or the psyche of the American character. So it doesn’t much bother me that the new ending feels borrowed from a dark Japanese movie, and it’s hard for me to find fault with performers who focus less on their character’s motivation than on their own diaphragm.

This is not to disparage this cast, which is inclusive and talented and largely intact from the earlier run (only one of the 12 is new,) They deliver the goods even better than they did last year. They are giving bigger, you could say Broadway-sized, performances, while retaining the acoustic, countrified feel of Daniel Kluger’s pleasingly twangy orchestrations, performed by  a seven-piece band  of accordion and strings (including banjo and mandolin!)  in place of the usual 28-piece orchestra.  One could make the case that this approach to the music in effect restores the atmosphere of the 1931 play on which Oklahoma is based, Green Grow The Lilacs, by Lynn Riggs, in which the characters sing regional folk songs of the era in which the play is set.

Producers of this fifth Broadway revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical reportedly think of the potential audiences as either “Oakies” or “Nokies.” – traditional fans of the show or hipsters who reject its corniness– and have devised marketing campaigns for each.

At the risk of aligning myself with the marketers, the truth is the show can appeal to both. In any case, understanding this dichotomy helps make more sense of this revival than the socio-political analyses I’ve seen. (Did we really need this darker Oklahoma to make us realize that the actual Oklahoma at the turn of the last century was nowhere near as gumdrops and lollypops as the 1955 Technicolor Oklahoma of the movie?) When Laury (Rebecca Naomi Jones) shares a microphone with Curly (Damon Daunno) under a cool red light to sing “People Will Say We’re in Love” as if they’re in a punk remake of A Star Is Born, you don’t have to think “they didn’t have microphones in Oklahoma in 1907.” You can think “that’s for the Nokies.”  The Okies get the wonderful performance — singing and acting AND comic chops — from Mary Testa as Aunt Eller. Both the Okies and the Nokies get stand-out Ali Stroker (Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, Glee) as the fun-loving, oversexed Ado Annie, teasing and kissing, flirting with and singing to the dim Will Parker (James Davis), but also swinging with him gleefully from a wheelchair.

Oklahoma!
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; New music arrangements by Daniel Kluger; Choreography by John Heginbotham; Directed by Daniel Fish
Scenic Design by Laura Jellinek; Costume Design by Terese Wadden; Lighting Design by Scott Zielinski; Sound Design by Drew Levy; Projection Design by Joshua Thorson; Wig and makeup design by Anne Ford-Coates
Musical Supervisor: Daniel Kluger; Musical Coordinator: John Miller; Conducted by Nathan Koci; Accordion/Drums: Nathan Koci; Mandolin/Electric Guitar: Joe Brent; Pedal Steel/Acoustic Guitar/Electric Guitar: Brett Parnell; Banjo: Hilary Hawke; Violin: Sarah Goldfeather; Cello: Leah Coloff; Bass: Eleonore Oppenheim
Cast: Will Brill as Ali Hakim, Anthony Cason as Cord Elam, Damon Daunno as Curly McLain , James Davis as Will Parker, Gabrielle Hamilton, Rebecca Naomi Jones as Laurey Williams, Will Mann as Mike, Mallory Portnoy as Gertie Cummings , Ali Stroker as Ado Annie, Mitch Tebo as Annie’s father Andrew Carnes, Mary Testa as Aunt Ella, Patrick Vaill as Jud Fry.
Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission.
“Oklahoma!” is on stage through September 1, 2019

 

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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