All Er Nothin': Rodger's and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! on Broadway

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.

Road to Hell: Post Show Notes on Hadestown on Broadway

I was very excited to have the opportunity to see Hadestown on Tuesday night. It’s this year’s big hit show. I’d heard excellent things about the show, and of course it won the Tony Award for Best Musical this year. In what was perhaps a rash decision, I purchased resale tickets in the back row of the mezzanine at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City. It was totally worth it.

Since Hadestown opened in April, I was able to see it with the original cast intact. The more well-known cast members included Andre De Shields (Hermes), Reeve Carney (Orpheus), Amber Gray (Persephone), and Patrick Page (Hades). Eva Noblezada (Eurydice), was out for this performance, so I saw her understudy Khaila Wilcoxson instead. She was fabulous!

The featured ensemble of The Fates were played by Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, and Kay Trinidad. The rest of the ensemble was Afra Hines, Timothy Hughes, John Krause, Kimberly Marable, and Ahmad Simmons. As far as I know, I did not see any other swings or understudies, but I’m also not sure if those are announced the way lead actors are announced.

The band was led from the piano by Liam Robinson. It included seven players by my count, though a guitarist is not listed on this Playbill page. Several of them played multiple instruments.

A few notes about Hadestown first. It tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, which I won’t summarize here. (I will provide a link to the Wikipedia article about it though). Filtered through a concept by Anais Mitchell, here it’s told with steampunk and dixieland/folk elements.

The show is overtly theatrical, including direct addressing of the audience and no attempt at realistic locations. It originated as a concept album by Ms. Mitchell in 2006, and was developed through a series of productions (Off-Broadway, then in Calgary and London) along with the director Rachel Chavkin, who became famous for her work on Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 a few years ago.

I listened to the original concept album in 2016 and was kind of unimpressed. The tunes were nice (I especially liked “Way Down Hadestown” for its dixieland jazz feel) but they were individual moments, not parts of a story. It was more album than show.

The show gathered steam recently, so on the drive to Virginia I listened to the Off-Broadway live recording and was much more impressed. In particular, the song “Wait for Me” grabbed my attention. Other standout tracks included “Road to Hell” (the opening number) and “Our Lady of the Underground” which starts Act 2, and in which the character Persephone introduces the members of the orchestra by name. The show was clearly structured now with a through-line I could follow even without the scenes.

After the show won the Tony Award, I wanted to give it a shot live when I went to NYC on this trip. The reviews I read were universally raves and the performers (especially Ms. Gray and Ms. Noblezada) were widely praised. Mr. De Shields won a Tony Awards for his performance, and the cast showcase there was compelling, though I didn’t fall in love with it there.

With all that in mind, when I found out tickets weren’t completely unattainable, I was thrilled to get a chance to see it.

I’m a big fan of shows that begin with a strong statement as the audience enters. Usually this seems to come in the form of having the curtain raised showing the set so the audience can examine it. Hadestown was no exception.

I’d heard some interviews with the ensemble members on the Ensemblist podcast where they had described it like being in a New Orleans bar. I could absolutely see French Quarter vibes in this set. A few tables and chairs were scattered around, and along the walls were several tiers on which instruments (and later the band) sat.

There was a small balcony with stairs leading up to it and underneath the balcony was the “bar” which was blacked out with cloth to hide the drum set. The center of the stage contained three concentric rings which were later revealed to be turntables used extensively as the show went on.

At the start of the show, something truly shocking happened. With broad smiles on their faces, the whole company (cast and orchestra) rushed out onto the stage, waved at the audience, and took their seats. My mind was already blown. I’ve seen shows that begin with the actors taking their places in full light, but never an immediate acknowledgment of the audience.

Mr. De Shields emerged last. He rambled across the stage, shaking a hand here, touching a shoulder there, greeting all the ensemble members seated at the tables. The principals and fates were off to the sides and back. Then he turned to face the audience and just looked, totally at ease. Without a word he had every eye on him.

There was a long pause. Then with a broad grin, he unbuttoned his jacket and revealed a sparkly vest beneath. It broke the tension and the audience applauded.

He gestured to the trombone player and kicked off the first song.

I won’t go into such detail about the rest of the show, but those first moments absolutely captivated me. So many of my favorite theatrical elements drawn together with a total command. This is a show that embraces imagination and requires the audience to believe totally.

The acting itself, for the most part, was realistic. Characters looked at each other when they talked, and moved around naturally. Any time a character was speaking or interacting with another, it was realistic or slightly heightened. The dialogue in the show is often in verse and short phrases.

Much of the show is sung or underscored and occasionally the cast joins in the accompaniment. At one memorable moment, the band dropped out and the only music was one actor stomping a beat and singing. The Fates sometimes played accordion and violin. Orpheus himself, the prototypical musician, played guitar often.

Some other singular moments that I remember:

  • The fracturing of the barroom set when Orpheus descends into the underworld, revealing an industrial wall covered with blinding lights.

  • The unexpected trombone solo, in which the player actually stood out of his seat and walked downstage to stand by Hermes; he played a jazz solo directly to the audience

  • Most of Persephone’s solo moments, were riveting.

  • The famous “swinging lanterns” during “Wait for Me” which were striking, but not as astonishing as I’d imagined them to be.

That last point brings me to some of my specific dislikes about the show.

I should point out now that these are incredibly personal, and do not take away from the achievement of this work. Also, they are likely colored by the fact that I heard so much about the show before seeing it, and imagination has better special effects than life.

As I said, some moments didn’t quite rise to the level I’d imagined of them. When you’re in a proscenium theatre, there is a distinct divide between actors and audience, whatever you do. Even in this show, the fourth wall wasn’t completely disintegrated. I wanted to feel like dancing in the opening number, and instead I just wanted to watch them dance.

Orpheus is an enigma of a character, more device than person. In this story, he’s described as kinda dumb but incredibly gifted as an artist. I wonder if the story would be strengthened by making him simply dreamy, not unintelligent. Then his determination to rescue Eurydice would be more admirable and deeper. It would result from courage, instead of from youthful unthinking.

A quick note that I disagree with the statement that Orpheus/Eurydice are underwritten compared to Hades/Persephone. Some people feel that the latter relationship is given more nuance. I think it’s just a more complicated relationship. Orpheus and Eurydice are clear and simple.

Reeve Carney has a nice voice and it was well suited to the character of Orpheus as singer/songwriter. He moved stiffly sometimes, especially at the beginning. I wasn’t sure if this was intentional. He also had a habit of squeezing his eyes shut and grimacing slightly when he went into falsetto, which he does a lot. It sounded good but looked like he was working really hard.

This last one is a spoiler, so skip to the dividing line if you want to miss it.

Finally, I was really looking forward to the climactic moment of the show when Orpheus breaks and looks back to see Eurydice. The stage picture was incredible. I think it would have been heightened even more to have been in complete silence. At first I thought it was silent but after a moment I realized the violin was playing high, shifting harmonics in the background. It was eerie, but having a sharp contrast to the musical build could be devastating.

So here’s the short version of my thoughts: Incredible show.

fThe complaints I just aired are really footnotes to what is an extremely compelling night at the theatre and a highly original vision of what musicals can do and be. My complaints are really the definition of creative differences.

I hope to one day work on this show, and I’d love to get to talk to anyone involved in creating it or putting it together. Everyone has made a massive creative investment, whether onstage or off. This is truly a vision of what theatre can be.