This radical new production, which had a short, sold-out run in Brooklyn last fall, probably won't please anyone who wants to savor the pure honey of that great Rodgers and Hammerstein score, first heard in 1943. For that matter, anyone who just wants to sit back and enjoy a production that pops every kernel of Oklahoma!'s Americana corn may feel as if he or she just swallowed a horsefly.
OKLAHOMA! Broadway Reviews
Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! has officiallyopened at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre. It will play a limited engagement through Sunday, September 1, 2019.
The cast stars Will Brill as Ali Hakim,Anthony Casonas Cord Elam, Damon Daunno as Curly McLain, James DavisasWill Parker, Gabrielle Hamilton as Lead Dancer, Rebecca Naomi Jones as Laurey Williams, Will Mann as Mike, Mallory Portnoy as Gertie Cummings,Ali Stroker as Ado Annie, Mitch Tebo as Andrew Carnes, two-time Tony Award-nominee Mary Testa as Aunt Eller and Patrick Vaill as Jud Fry. The cast also includes: Chris Bannow, Demetia Hopkins-Greene, Sasha Hutchings, Denver Milord, Kristie Dale Sanders, Chelsea Lee Williams.
Let's see what the critics are saying...
What she does is a far cry from the same sequence as immortalized by Agnes de Mille, the show's legendary original choreographer. But on its own, radically reconceptualized terms, it achieves the same effect. As she gallops, slithers and crawls the length of the stage, casting wondering and seductive glances at the front row, Ms. Hamilton comes to seem like undiluted id incarnate, a force that has always been rippling beneath the surface here. She's as stimulating and frightening - and as fresh - as last night's fever dream. So is this astonishing show.
BWW Review: Director Daniel Fish Makes Sensational Broadway Debut Illuminating Contemporary Issues in Rodgers and Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA!
Some of the finest Broadway musical revivals of this young century have been directed by Bartlett Sher, who has staged handsome, traditional-looking productions of SOUTH PACIFIC, THE KING AND I, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and MY FAIR LADY that, with minimal revisions, interpret the material with a modern eye. While Daniel Fish's mounting of Oklahoma!, may seem like an extreme departure on the surface, it displays the same respect for the authors' work while drawing out what will connect with modern audiences. This is a sensational Broadway debut for an artist we'll hopefully be seeing more from in years to come.
As with many a reimagining of a classic, not all of Fish's gambits entirely work. That Act 2 dream ballet, reworked since the show's run last fall at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse, is overlong and dramatically muddy. And his most radical departure from Oscar Hammerstein's script comes in the finale with the decidedly understated return of Jud at the wedding of Curly and Laurey.
You won't leave feeling miserable, but neither will you be slapping your knees. But this production of Oklahoma! feels less "dark" than sensibly and successfully inquisitive. Fish and his cast ask reasoned questions of a musical that has contained all these questions in plain sight for many years-and in this Oklahoma! those questions are answered with vivid, pugnacious confidence.
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Many of the vocals avoid the bravura in favor of the isolated choke. Most of the dance has been cut; what survives is largely an expression of individual feeling, as when Gabrielle Hamilton dances a solo dream ballet, clad in an ironic "Dream, Baby, Dream" shirt, wherein it seems America might crush Laurey under its oppressive weight. No wonder Rebecca Naomi Jones plays the putative romantic heroine as unhappy throughout, removed from her world, aware of her own metaphors, interested in a furtive fumble with Jud Fry (the excellent Patrick Vail, who avoids all the usual tropes) but clearly far smarter than her daffy Curly (Damon Daunno).
The production has gotten fuller, freer, and funnier in its Broadway transfer. Its remarkable actors - especially Damon Daunno's cocky, come-hither Curly McClain and James Davis's ebullient, a-couple-knots-short-of-a-lasso Will Parker - feel loose, confidant, and playful, as if they're all taking deeper breaths and, consequently, greater risks. At St. Ann's Warehouse, the performances had a veneer of experimental coolness, a dry, distanced note in the delivery, as if the actors were standing a little apart from their characters and, along with the audience, observing these familiar figures they'd been given to play. Though that sense of comment remains - and Mary Testa and Rebecca Naomi Jones continue to make the most of it as a wry, ruthless Aunt Eller and a Laurey flush with intense, reserved desire - the characters' humanity now feels as present and comprehensive as the director's style.
Director Daniel Fish's bold, spare revival of Oklahoma! gives us the ranch but not the dressing. The musical's cast of 12 performs in modern clothing, mostly without microphones, with the audience seated on either side of the minimal stage. The house lights are often left up, letting us take in the homespun Western feel of Laura Jellinek's set: wooden risers, colorful banners, racks of guns on one wall. But sometimes the room goes pitch-black, as when Laurie (a wary, ungirlish Rebecca Naomi Jones) is alone with her would-be suitor, Jud (the lanky Patrick Vaill, tense with incel self-pity), or when Jud's rival, Curly (Damon Daunno), visits him in his creepy smokehouse. There are pockets of dark menace in the show's wide-open spaces.
This isn't a case of redefining a character but of acknowledging a character's secret self. It's no gimmick, then, but a stroke of directorial invention to play some scenes in complete darkness - the better to allow that private self to step out from the shadows and declare itself. In that spirit, Fish exposes those sexual passions that are kept firmly repressed in traditional productions. (In this version, Curly and Laurey are free to enjoy some candid make-out sessions.) The only failure with this let-it-all-hang-out directorial style is the Dream Ballet, which is supposed to hint delicately of the lovers' yearnings but is here allowed to go on ad nauseam.
But for the most part, this production succeeds thanks to revealing and vulnerable performances all around, immersive intimacy (with the theater made to feel like a wooden communal hall), cute touches (including offering free chili and cornbread at intermission), a streamlined flow and new bluegrass-style orchestrations that work surprisingly well.
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With the score making an abrupt shift in style to something like the electric squall of Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner," Oklahoma! rings out with a nod to the sublime, violent beauty Hendrix found in our national anthem. Is it so surprising Fish finds it on the plains?
There's no denying the abundant pleasures to be had from a sumptuous large-scale revival of a classic American musical with a top-flight cast. But a bold reimagining of a familiar work from the canon can deliver an altogether different and far more startling thrill, bringing out unexpected textures and exposing previously subterranean thematic seams. The virtues of a revisionist production don't negate those of the traditional presentation, or vice versa. As the song says, "the farmer and the cowman should be friends." Purists will sniff anyway, but for audiences open to experiencing Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! from a fresh perspective, director Daniel Fish's probing revamp will be a revelation.
This is not a piece of theater that allows you to sit back and be entertained. Fish demands almost as much from the people in the audience as he does from his cast, forcing them to really listen for lines delivered in near whispers, or reorient when the show is plunged into total blackness. Always a threat of violence lurks. "Country is changing, got to change with it," Curly says, not long before the rousing title song ends the show. But from the driven, verging on angry way it's sung, the message is clear. That change will come at a price.
But in striving for realness, Fish can actually reduce the level of their appeal, or the degree to which they earn our empathy. The latter is especially true for the show's darkest figure, the farmhand Jud, a troubled loner obsessed with Curly's love interest, Laurey. Though Jud is sometimes played merely as a heavy, better productions have conveyed his own psychological suffering; here, in Patrick Vaill's sulking, seething portrayal, he's a walking mug shot, lifted straight from a news report of the latest shooting spree. (In one scene, projection designer Joshua Thorson casts Vaill's twitching face larger than life on a screen looming at the back of the set.)
Daunno, who plays his guitar a good bit, and Jones sing out with gusto and swap insults not far from the level of Benedick and Beatrice in William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Testa has fun with Aunt Eller's orneriness and adds to the evening's singing (in a traditionally non-singing role). Special praise has to be aimed the way of Ali Stroker, who's taken on the prairie-promiscuous Ado Annie. She bounds about with fervor in a wheel chair. It may be that her countrified version of "I Cain't Say No" is the highest of the highlights on display. James Davis comes purty close with his sung and danced "Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City." Will Brill doesn't lift his voice in song much, but he nails down the meddling peddler well enough, particularly on his "mind your own business" line.
Still, this Oklahoma! deserves credit for out-of-the-box thinking and casting. It earns its exclamation point, and it knows it. That emphatic punctuation mark is the biggest thing on the Playbill. All things considered, there should also be a giant question mark.
The most welcome, and most stimulating, innovation is the fresh orchestrations, by Daniel Kluger, for a small band seated in a pit onstage. The instrumentation favors guitars, banjo and accordion, and while Broadway musicals usually feature more robust and varied orchestrations, Kluger's arrangements, and the terrific music-making, gives the show an authentic-feeling countrified flavor that makes the classic songs soar and leap with a new, spirited sound.
Some of Fish's ideas are fun. The chili and cornbread doled out to the audience at intermission is tasty, and the women snapping ears of corn during "Many A New Day" gives the scene rebellious energy. But in putting his actors in modern dress, making guns his wallpaper and forcing every moment that a gun is brandished or even mentioned to have bombastic significance, Fish clearly is saying he's not a great fan of the culture of the Great Plains - of yesteryear or yesterday. In a preposterously heavy-handed sequence, he even has Jud present Curly with a pistol, rather than the usual knife, which leads to a shocking but inane conclusion. All this, in a hokey old show that includes the lyric, "Gonna give ya barley, carrots and potaters." Listening to the New York audience applauding their own virtuosity makes a guy want to put this "Oklahoma!" out to pasture.
For reasons that make no sense whatsoever, the landmark 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein production that marked the beginning of a new era in American musicals has now been cheapened and vulgarized at New York's Circle in the Square Theatre in a "modernized" version designed to appeal to kids who have never heard of Oklahoma! and ignorant ticket buyers who hate musicals in general and avoid anything categorized as "old-fashioned" in particular.