Naomi Jones & Damon Daunno (c)
Little Fang Photo
By Eugene Paul
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
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.
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
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.
& 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.
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
Stoker and Will Brill
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).
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.
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).
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.