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Broadway Review: ‘Oklahoma!’

A dark and dangerous directorial vision presents this classic treasure by Rodgers & Hammerstein in a fresh but far from sunny new light.

Will Brill, Anthony Cason, Damon Daunno, James Davis, Gabrielle Hamilton, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Will Mann, Mallory Portnoy, Ali Stroker, Mitch Tebo, Mary Testa, Patrick Vaill.

In Broadway’s new “Oklahoma!,” the audience is just a pounding heartbeat away from Daniel Fish’s revisionist treatment of this iconic American musical. There’s still “a bright golden haze on the meadow” in the 1943 classic by Rodgers and Hammerstein — but here there are also fully stocked gun racks up on the walls, just to remind us how the West was really won.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that director Fish has deconstructed this beloved warhorse (which was a groundbreaker in its own day, it should be remembered): Nowadays, I think they drum you out of the Directors Guild if you direct a classic the way it was written. The wonder of this production is that so much of the joy and optimism of the original work still shines bright through the darkness.

The most dramatic deviation from tradition is the sound. Stripped of all the brass, Richard Rodgers’ music no longer has that distinctive Broadway sound. Rather, as played by a modest seven-piece string orchestra (suited and booted as if for a hoedown), the familiar melodies now sound more like country-western songs. Music director Nathan Koci did the vocal arrangements, and the singers provide the twang.

The sun still shines bright (the lighting is the work of Scott Zielinski) on the sweeping prairies of the Oklahoma Territory, poised on the verge of statehood in 1907, and there’s no cow dung on anybody’s boots. (Terese Wadden designed the purty costumes). But the production style is decidedly naturalistic, with a strong undercurrent of violence. In this context, the killing that ends the show is no facile deus ex machina, but a real statement about the making of America and the settling of the Wild West.

Just as blood keeps flooding these fields of golden corn, the sunny characters also have their dark side — or at least a bit of shade to their natural goodness. Curly, the all-American good-guy hero played by the personable Damon Daunno, is a lot more seductive than the usual well-scrubbed depiction of that lovesick cowpoke. He makes his “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” sound like a tune out of a French boudoir.

Curly’s dearly beloved, the virginal Laurey, also seems more overtly sexual in Rebecca Naomi Jones’s luscious performance. The way she sings “Out of My Dreams” could drive the poor guy crazy with lust, and when these two team up on “People Will Say We’re in Love,” there’s nothing innocent about it.

As for Jud Fry, he’s always been a predatory stalker and something of a menace.  But here, Patrick Vaill plays him with such authentic sexual longing, he doesn’t seem half creepy, and we honestly feel for him in both “Pore Jud” and “Lonely Room.”

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.

None of this is to say that every element in this show needs a fresh airing. Ado Annie is man-crazy, and no act of literary deconstruction is about to change that. Happily, Ali Stroker’s performance is full of fun.  Whirling and twirling in her wheelchair, she’s a darling dervish, and her singing (“I Cain’t Say No”) is an invitation to smile. As Will Parker, James Davis makes a good romantic match for Stroker’s bubbly Annie (“All er Nuthin’”), and Will Brill is hilarious as Ali Hakim, the quick-witted peddler who fixes the picnic-basket auction.

Mary Testa’s earth-motherly Aunt Eller keeps the more rambunctious characters grounded even as she oversees the cooking of the chili and cornbread served to the audience at intermission. It’s a corny touch, but a nice balance of lightness for the darkness that makes this ambitious revival a winner.

More Broadway: 

Broadway Review: 'Oklahoma!'

Circle in the Square; 651 seats; $169.50 top. Opened April 7, 2019. Reviewed April 4. Running time: TWO HOURS, 40 MIN.

Production: A presentation by Eva Price, Level Forward, Abigail Disney, Barbara Manocherian & Carl Moellenberg, James L. Nederlander, David Mirvish, Mickey Liddell & Robert Ahrens, BSL Enterprises & Magicspace Entertainment, Berlind Productions, John Gore Organization, Cornice Productions, Bard Fisher / R. Gold, LAMF / J. Geller, T. Narang / ZKM Media, R/F/B/V Group, Araca / IPN, St. Ann’s Warehouse and Tamar Climan of the Bard Summerscape production originally developed, produced, and premiered at the Richard B. Fisher Center of the Performing Art at Bard College, of a musical in two acts with music by Richard Rodgers and book & lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs and original choreography by Agnes De Mille.

Creative: Directed by Daniel Fish. Sets, Laura Jellinek; costumes, Terese Wadden; lighting, Scott Zielinski; sound, Drew Levy; projections, Joshua Thorson; special effects, Jeremy Chernick; production stage manager, James D. Latus.

Cast: Will Brill, Anthony Cason, Damon Daunno, James Davis, Gabrielle Hamilton, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Will Mann, Mallory Portnoy, Ali Stroker, Mitch Tebo, Mary Testa, Patrick Vaill.

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