During my trip to NYC this week, I had a chance to buy rush tickets to one show for a Wednesday matinee. I was on the fence, divided between Beetlejuice and the new production of Oklahoma! Taking advice from several people, I bought tickets to see Oklahoma!.
It was astounding.
I should preface this by saying that I have never seen or worked on a production of Oklahoma!. You can see that on my Music Director portfolio here. Before seeing the show, I knew the broad outlines of the plot, and I’d listened to the original cast recording. Incidentally, I also found these arrangements by Nelson Riddle that I really like.
I also read an article years ago about the original production of this show at Bard College (more about that in a moment). It completely fired my imagination and planted the idea of completely stripping down a show to examine its story closely.
So when I got a chance to buy the ticket (and sit on the front row, no less) for a reasonable price, I was in.
This production of Oklahoma! stays true to the text of the original book and score by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on a play called Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, it was adapted in the first collaboration between Rodgers and Hammerstein. They of course went on to other great shows including South Pacific, The Sound of Music, and Carousel (among many others).
This interpretation was a concept by Daniel Fish and originally staged at Bard College in 2015. He has continued to refine it through a few other iterations until it landed on Broadway this year. It received the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical and is currently playing a limited engagement at the Circle in the Square Theatre Center.
Once again, I saw most of the original cast. Curly is normally played by Damon Daunno but I saw his understudy Denver Milord, who seemed perfectly natural in the role. Laurie was played by the stunning Rebecca Naomi Jones, and Jud (her other suitor, an awkward outsider) was Patrick Vaill. This serious love triangle is given comic contrast by Ado Annie (Ali Stroker), Will Parker (Jimmy Davis), and Ali Hakim (Will Brill).
There is no ensemble, only a collection of featured roles including Aunt Eller (played by Mary Testa), Cord Elam (Anthony Canson), Mike (Will Mann), Gertie Cummings (Mallory Portnoy), and Andrew Carnes (Mitch Tebo). The only person with no speaking lines is the Lead Dancer, an enigmatic figure who appears only once as the performer of the dream ballet. That was Gabrielle Hamilton.
The show is accompanied by a country band, including guitars, fiddles, mandolin, bass, and accordion. The band and instruments can be seen here.
With all the names out of the way, let’s get to the show.
First, I was astonished by the appearance of the theatre. Much like my comments about Hadestown, I like a show that strikes the audience as soon as you walk in the door. In this case, the entire space, floor to ceiling (including under the chairs and basically every flat surface) was covered with smooth, untreated plywood. The far wall of the theatre (which would be “upstage” by most definitions) was the same surface, but painted with a vague pattern of rolling fields and a distant farmhouse.
The front row of the audience is actually onstage, seated at long tables covered with white paper and with a crock pot every few feet, steaming away. These were full of chili which was served with cornbread at intermission. The tables are recessed slightly below stage level.
There were two cutouts near the “downstage” end where the band members played. This made them visible while also out-of-the-way. They were able to interact occasionally with the players (as when Gertie shows off her wedding ring or when Curly plays duets with them during the box social). There was a visible tunnel entrance on the downstage end and three hidden doorways on the upstage end.
I don’t want to summarize the show, and my impressions are far too numerous to mention. So I’m going to spit them out in whatever order they come to me. I’m also not going to divide them up into positive and negative as I did with Hadestown.
The arrangements suited the show perfectly. It was country flavored without being authentically country. You’d never confuse it with stuff played on a country music station, classic or modern; It’s neither Patsy Cline nor Jason Aldean. But it mostly works!
There were two scenes played completely in the dark, two scenes played in surreal green light, and two scenes that used live video projected on the wall. These were highly impactful, but didn’t obviously connect to the otherwise fairly natural look of the show. I would have liked to see these woven in more logically, with a clear pattern of meaning.
The country accents and acting were essentially natural. I felt like I could run into these people on the street. That being said, Hammerstein wrote more than a few turns of phrase that sound country but aren’t. “I’ve known what’s right from wrong since I been ten” just doesn’t flow as naturally as “since I wuz ten” or even “since I’s ten”.
The chili was surprisingly good. (I was worried. As a displaced Texan, I have my favorite kinds of chili. I didn’t expect to like it.) However, it wasn’t really integrated into the show and felt more like a gimmick than it did a vital part of the concept.
The Characters of Will and Ado Annie were comically exaggerated but too much. They were clearly not the brightest bulbs, but both very sweet. Ado Annie’s song “I Cain’t Say No” worked better for me than it did in the Tony Awards. And it felt like she was saying “Why would anyone want to say no?” rather than “I don’t feel comfortable saying no” or something. This was a girl who is happy-go-lucky with her sexuality.
I have read complaints about the writing of Ali Hakim as a broad middle-eastern stereotype. He’s supposed to be a pseudo-Persian con-man traveling salesman. In this one they did away with all pretense of exoticism except for a wild beard. I thought it worked well.
The dream ballet was interesting and really well-executed. But it was also so abstract that I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Interestingly, it was also performed mostly to recorded music, allowing for more colors that weren’t available to the band.
The ending…oh my. (Spoilers from here to the dividing line). In the original version, as related by my friends, Judd arrives at Laurie and Curly’s wedding drunk and gets into a fight where Curly accidentally kills him. There is then a perfunctory trial where Curly is exonerated and sent off on his honeymoon.
In this version, it’s all slowed down and surreal. Jud is not obviously drunk. He gives a revolver to Curly, who, after a long moment, shoots him (Jud darts toward him, which sets him off). Curly and Laurie are spattered with blood until the end. The courtroom scene is played slowly and deliberately, with Aunt Eller steering things. She masterminds the not-guilty verdict.
The final reprise of the title song is almost robotic, cheerless. The actors go through the same motions as during the earlier version, but there are no smiles, no cheer. It’s really kind of unnerving, especially with the remains of the scene still spattered around the stage. If you leave this show smiling broadly, you’ve missed the point.
I want to finish this by giving my overall opinion of the concept. I admire its originality and commitment. This concept is really about the script and the acting. Everything else is meant to serve that. And for the most part, the orchestrations, choreography, and set design did add to it. I don’t think it’s the “definitive” interpretation of Oklahoma! (if one exists), but it’s a highly compelling one.
I hope to one day be involved in creating a show that is so singular in its vision, and that is able to strip away the expected finish in the interest of emotional honesty.