Oklahoma! - Violence as American as Chili and Cornbread

The rifles, the chili, the playbill
The new Oklahoma! playing at Circle in the Square (after a highly successful off-Broadway run at St. Ann's) starts off sunnily enough. Laura Jellinek's set design is homey and rugged at the same time -- the stage is filled with bright wood picnic benches and where I was seated (right on the floor of the stage) there was a hot pot of chili brewing in front of me. But the walls were lined with rifles. Almost the whole first act played without the usual dimming of the house lights. The ruggedly handsome Damon Daunno (looking a bit like Sun Records-era Elvis) strums his guitar as he launches into a disarmingly casual, country/ bluegrass rendition of "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'."

In fact, Act One of Daniel Fish's Oklahoma! might be stripped down to only a small band and twelve singers but it's basically your grandmother's Oklahoma! Curly is still the handsome cowboy who wants to take the standoffish Laurey to the dance social, Aunt Eller (a wonderful Mary Testa) is still a down-home slice of wisdom, and the comic trio of Ado Annie/Will Parker/Ali Hakim is unchanged. The laughs come easily.

Daunno and Testa
The acting and singing are naturalistic. These are young, hot-blooded people so it's natural that after they kiss or snuggle or sing together they are breathing heavily. The music and dialogue are also mostly un-miked, so these might as well be your next door neighbors holding a cookout/singalong. There are a few moments when the characters walk to the mike onstage and start belting and you're reminded that they are actually highly trained Broadway singers. One such moment is in the middle of "People Will Say We're In Love." Damon Daunno's walks up to the mike with his guitar, and his voice all of a sudden soars into the auditorium. He banters with Laurey, as if he's trying to impress her by showing off his pipes. She responds and the two of them end the duet breathing heavily. The moment becomes very sexy and romantic. Richard Rodgers' timeless melodies sound intimate and vivid.

Patrick Vail and Will Brill 
The only darkness comes when the Oscar Hammerstein's book and lyrics goes dark -- as Curly goes to visit the farm hand Jud (a vivid, intense Patrick Vail). The auditorium goes completely dark to simulate Jud's bleak, dark abode, and Curly cruelly taunts Jud with "Poor Jud is Daid" as he urges Jud to imagine his own suicide. This is another moment where both Curly and Jud are singing into the mike, so their voices are amplified. Since the scene is played in the dark with only facial projections on a wall Damon Daunno's ingratiating voice becomes creepy as he sells Jud's suicide the way Ali Hakim would sell one of his trinkets.  With Jud's "Lonely Room" as sung by Vail is heartbreaking. You feel for the shunned Jud. The chemistry between Laurey and Jud in this revival is played as something ambiguous -- Jud isn't a just creepy incel. There really might be something there between the two.

Gabrielle Hamilton, photo @ Sara Krulwich
During intermission the audience is served some chili and corn bread. Cornbread was yummy, the chili less so. Then after intermission BAM! it's all of a sudden a very different Oklahoma! The dream sequence ballet is a surreal, nightmarish bad acid trip -- the gentle bluegrass accompaniment has been abandoned and the music is now a loud electronica. Gabrielle Hamilton is a bald, athletic woman dressed in a T-shirt that says "DREAM BABY DREAM" and her dance is a violent sexual fantasy which is really hard to describe -- you kind of have to just see it. I didn't really get some of it -- what was the symbolism of all the falling boots from the ceiling? I could see what choreographer John Heginbotham was trying to achieve but I can't say I enjoyed the results. It wasn't the modern dance moves that turned me off, it was more the lack of nuance. In my opinion it was trying too hard to be edgy.

Ali Stroker, Will Brill, James Davis, photo @ Sara Krulwich
From then on Fish's Oklahoma! mixes light and dark in ways that don't quite gel. The wonderful comic trio of Ado Annie (a wonderful Ali Stroker, who uses her wheelchair almost as a sexual prop), Will Parker (played as hilariously empty-headed by James Davis) and Ali Hakim (Will Brill, who foregoes the usual "Persian" mannerisms and presents Khan as a hustler too tired to even put on an act) remains as hilarious as ever. Even though Fish could have explored the dark side of Ado Annie's father offering his daughter up to anyone who had $50 there seems to have been a conscious decision to preserve this storyline as comic relief. Ali Stroker I think is a sure bet to win the Tony for best supporting actress. She's an unalloyed delight. I love the way she speeds up "I Can't Say No" as if she were ... well, getting more and more sexually excited. Mallory Portnoy (Gertie Cummings) also has a small but hilarious role in the Ado/Ali/Will storyline.


Daunno and Jones. Spoiler: the wedding dress won't remain white
But the main love triangle of Curly/Laurey/Jud goes very, very dark in a way I'm not sure the book and music supports. Jud's death is changed to something much more ambiguous and the reaction to the death makes you question the moral fiber of Curly, Laurey, Aunt Eller, Judge Andrew Carnes, the whole community. Originally Jud fights Curly with the knife-hidden-inside-the-kaleidoscope that Jud had bought from Ali Hakim. In this version, Jud shows up at Curly and Laurey's wedding with a gun, and hands over the gun to Curly. Curly then shoots Jud. It's very unclear whether Jud invites his own death by asking Curly to shoot him or Curly is a cold-blooded murderer. Laurey is devastated by Jud's death -- she spends the rest of the show in a stupor.

There is a mock trial that is chilling in its lack of regard for the human life lost. In the "traditional" version Jud is the aggressor so the mock trial is more justified. But here Curly shot an unarmed Jud. The fact that the one person to speak up against the "mock trial" is the federal marshal and in this production he's played by an African American actor (Anthony Carson) AND Aunt Eller shuts his protests down with a brutal, condescending air that comes across as very Jim-Crow-era gives the finale (a reprise of the title song) a bleak, disturbing feeling. Are we even supposed to like these people? Laurey's shocked face as she sings in her bloody wedding gown gives an entirely different spin on this classic.

Jones and Daunno
This is a very compelling revival of Oklahoma! but it's not perfect. It's hampered by the lead balloon that is Rebecca Naomi Jones' Laurey. She has a stone-faced expression throughout the performance, no matter what the occasion. I thought at first she was going for the cold siren approach but as the drama heated up in Act Two and she still had the same glum expression I realized that this wasn't a self-conscious acting choice, it was Jones' own limitation. And as I said, the dream ballet was a moment that I thought came very close to jumping the shark. Also, Mary Testa projects such warmth in Act One as Aunt Eller that the very dark turn her character takes at the end of the musical is ... well, I don't know what to make of it.

But this revival makes an impact and will interest anyone who thought they knew all there was to know about Rodgers' and Hammerstein's musical. It's very different from the delightful but conventional Kiss Me Kate revival.The loneliness and anger of Jud reminds one of all the "manifestos" that have been found after a mass shooting. And the gun violence that is so frequent that it barely makes the news ... That's the reaction to Jud's death. After all, violence is as American as chili and corn bread.


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