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Rebecca Naomi Jones & Damon Daunno                                         (c) Little Fang Photo




                                   By Eugene Paul



A estimated 60,000,000 people have seen professional theatre presentations of Oklahoma! in the 75 years since it burst upon the stage and changed musicals forever.  That’s not counting the 60,000,000 people who have seen the filmed version – and are still viewing it.  I can’t begin to count the number of times the songs from the show have been recorded, aired, played. It’s rather interesting that this current production is actually billed as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!. It’s not. There’s no chance that if Rodgers and Hammerstein were alive that they would have permitted Daniel Fish’s current production of their all but hallowed musical, Oklahoma!, now a new Broadway hit.


Where it fits rather snugly with the surprisingly large number of shows that also carry the scars  from a slash of inherent darkness. We are in scarred times and we’re facing them one way or another. Back when Oklahoma! first came to life  on Broadway we were in the middle of a  life and death struggle around the world and the last thing we wanted or needed was to be reminded of our travails.  We wanted surcease, uplift, joy, a time out from blood and guts and fear and death. Brilliant Daniel Fish, our director,  says there is no time out. There never was.  There never will be. It’s in our DNA. And he takes R & H’s sunniest, most magical creation and slams us in the kisser.


No, I don’t believe what he’s done to the show simply to be iconoclastic, although iconoclastic directors are so fashionable right now, I think he thinks that our basest basics deserve to be seen on stage right along with what we please to think of ourselves as good people, all part and parcel. Making it a better show. Veracity, authenticity, anachronisms, secondary. Of course, that affects everything, sets, costumes, casting. Lynn Riggs’s original play was set in 1906, when Oklahoma was still a territory. When a surrey with a fringe on top made perfect sense. Now, it’s a badly flirtatious throwaway, sung no better than any of the other classics in the show we’ve become accustomed to regard as treasures.


Okay, Fish’s casting makes sense, lining up with early post Civil War Oklahoma history.  One of the biggest, richest towns in the territory was all black. Until it was plundered, burnt to the ground and eradicated. All part of our history, all part of our DNA. So, yes, Laurey can logically be played by strong attractive Rebecca Naomi Jones.  With no bows to politically correct casting. But first and foremost, Oklahoma! is a musical, more so than most. And it is showbiz gospel that Rodgers and Hammerstein insisted that casting in any of their musicals had to consider voices first. Yes, of course, they wanted good actors but they wanted singers who could fulfill their songs vocally rather than actors who could sing. Major, major difference. In approach, in result, in fulfillment. Director Fish chose actors who could sing. He is looking for another sound.  His sound.


R & H created, followed a story, filled it with a glorious score. But  Fish has his theme: in spite of everything, the whole human race is still savage. Which channels his entire production. There’s a louche unease with each other  among the actors, who remain on stage and visible most of the time.



Aunt  Eller, played by Mary Testa as a gun totin’ tired, seen-it- all bartender type, mixes up the ingredients for corn bread with indifferent accustomed  efficiency. ( We, the audience, are offered chili and corn bread during the intermission). Buy there ain’t a  home spun, motherly gesture at all in the process.


Ali Stoker and Will Brill


Andrew Carnes ( Mitch Tebo), totally dour gun totin’ pa to Ado Annie hangs around watchin’ and waitin’.  So do  farmer Cord Elam (Anthony Cason) and cowboy Mike ( Will Mann)  in similar, not quite  relaxed tension. Gertie (Mallory Portnoy) flaunts her giggling,  physical  wares among the starers, among them peddler Ali Hakim (Will Brill).


Laura Jellinek’s set design of picnic tables and crock pots is set up in a raw, plywood world.  The theatre itself is lined with raw plywood. Lots of guns hung on the walls. The background vista of prairie and farm house is  faintly to be seen., just to be violated back into a plywood wall when director Fish needs a door or two in it for his actors. His theme allows him to bridge the past and the present as one. If he wants a microphone he gets one. The small country band (including  a couple of female fiddlers!) plays the glorious, lush score in country style from their shallow, plywood pit. “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” is a joke, thoroughly performed by  James Davis as bumpkin Will Parker, who’s stuck on marvelous Ado Annie, a refreshing Ali Stoker, who is wheel chair bound, opening up another set of associations.



One of director Fish’s biggest changes moves Laurey’s dream ballet, partly nightmare, in which her likely boy friend, cowboy Curley (Damon Daunno) fights with her villainous hired hand – she’s a farmer – Jud Fry (dynamite Patrick Vaill). It’s moved from the first act  where it’s  logically attached to Laurey’s uneasiness about men,  to the second act, which it introduces with a whoosh of stage filling smoke and is  superbly danced by extraordinary Gabrielle Hamilton in choreographer John Hegginbotham’s wildly imaginative rework of Laurey’s dream. But why? (The original choreography by Agnes De Mille is so famous she’s given program billing but not a lick of it is used).


Terese Wadden’s costuming is contemporary and comfortable, Scott Zielinski’s lighting goes from brightest to darkest, Joshua Thorson’s projections stun and everything adheres to director Daniel Fish’s bleak concept. The theme song, “Oklahoma!” is now a fight song. Fish’s audience, delighted with the latest thing, preens. I wish them all well. Rodgers and Hammerstein will survive.


Oklahoma! At Circle in the Square, 235 West 50th Street. Tickets: $119-$140. 2hrs 45 min. Thru Sept 1. 212-239-6200.