For at least two decades, any major revival of a “Golden Age” musical has come with some adjustment – from reformulated endings to ethnically correct and/or color-blind casting – but none has been so thoroughly and often drastically rethought as Daniel Fish’s mostly thrilling revisal of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 classic Oklahoma!, now at St. Ann’s Warehouse (three years after debut at Bard College as part of its SummerScape series). By the musical’s highly dramatic end, one realizes Fish has put every moment of this show under a newly cleaned, pristine microscope – even if his judgment is occasionally somewhat clouded – and when appropriate, reformulated its DNA.
From the moment one enters the bifurcated playing space created by Laura Jellinek – complete with brightly colored streamers on the ceiling, three dozen shotguns on one wall and a crude sketch of a meadow on another, and a small pit that house a seven-piece bluegrass band – it’s obvious this will be not a traditional staging. In fact, the best approach to enjoying this Oklahoma! is to erase any prior memory of the show (most notably, the glossy technicolor film).
Fish’s non-traditional philosophy extends to much of the primary casting as well. Curly is no hunk with a strong baritenor. He’s a slight, somewhat high-pitched cowboy embodied with a countrified charm by a guitar-strumming Damon Daunno. Laurey is no longer a blonde soprano/ingenue, but the dark-haired African-American singer/actress Rebecca Naomi Jones, belting to the heavens (at times) and emphasizing the character’s headstrong nature. The ditzy Ado Annie is delightfully played by the wheelchair-bound actress Ali Stroker, whose expert comic timing and stunning voice both prove to be award worthy. As Aunt Eller, the great comedian Mary Testa, superbly snappy as ever, is hardly the self-described “twig of a woman.” And the far-from-huge Patrick Vaill is initially more sad than menacing as the unhappy hired hand Jud Fry, engendering our sympathy before putting fear into our hearts (and the hearts of Laurey, Curly and company). Of the principals, only the superb singer-dancer James Davis fits the customary bill as Annie’s intended, the not-so-bright but supremely sweet Will Parker.
Even when sung in different keys or in Daniel Kluger’s often unusual arrangements, the R&H score remains an absolute wonder – each tune beautifully expressing character or feeling – but Fish’s gift is having his cast find so much extra emotional resonance in some of these tunes (“Many a New Day,” “Poor Jud Is Dead”) that you may feel you’ve never really heard them before.
Even more importantly, the cast breathes new life into Hammerstein’s dialogue. Here, Laurey’s confusion about her romantic feelings (or giving into them), Jud’s sadness and anger over his lot in his life, and Curly’s determination to win Laurey’s love have never felt more vital. In total, the show’s story has a full-bodied arc I’ve never previously experienced. (It’s almost hard to imagine that the New York Times blurb about the movie on its TV page used to read, “What’s the plot? It ain’t got!”)
Still, this Oklahoma! isn’t perfect. Fish has brought a bag of tricks as big and as stuffed as the one Felix the Cat used to carry, and I sometimes wished he’d have left it packed. (For example, I am still on the fence as to whether the use of projection in one key scene is an asset. I do know it wasn’t necessary.)
Most disturbingly, the so-called dream ballet, which now opens the second act, has been transformed by choreographer John Heginbothan into a Western-inspired modern-dance piece (led by the extremely athletic and impassioned Gabrielle Hamilton) that might work well on the stage of the Joyce Theater, but feels completely wrong here – especially because it doesn’t fulfill the needed function of illuminating Laurey’s inner conflict about her feelings for Jud and Curly.
Still, Laurey eventually makes up her mind about which man to marry. And by the end of these nearly three hours, it’s not just the people in Oklahoma (the would-be state) who will find themselves and their lives irrevocably changed. So will most audience members who have been lucky enough to experience this innovative production.