If a musical revival’s mission is to shake things up so that audiences appreciate a classic work anew, then director Daniel Fish’s radical reboot of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1943 classic Oklahoma! at Circle in the Square sure as shooting gets the job done. Which isn’t to say the show is a bull’s-eye.
In this alternately compelling and curious interpretation, the soon-to-be Sooner State is evoked by bare plywood walls lined with numerous gun racks. Lighting ranges from murky green and red shadows to pitch darkness. Steadicams project close-ups so extreme you’re almost inside characters’ mouths. And the twang of a steel guitar from the onstage band screams country.
All that conspires to flood the senses – and it works. Ears prick up. Eyes widen (when they’re not askance). And thanks to a gimmick of chili and cornbread served at intermission, taste buds tingle. That spicy bean dish – improved since the run at St. Ann’s Warehouse last fall that followed the redo’s debut at Bard College – goes down easy. The show, on the contrary, doesn’t always. After a strong start, the second act brings diminished returns and muddled choices and motivations.
The story, seemingly simple but packed with serious comments on men and women, class and American justice, is by now a familiar one. Curly McLain (Damon Daunno, appealing with Chris Isaacs-like vocal inflections), a cocksure, chaps-clad cowboy, and lowly lonely ranch hand Jud Fry (a sympathetic Patrick Vaill) vie for the love of Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones) despite her sullen passive aggression. Meanwhile, man-crazy Ado Annie (Ali Stroker, a ray of light) juggles cattleman Will Parker (James Davis) and peddler Ali Hakim (an invaluable Will Brill). Overbearing Aunt Eller (Mary Testa) rules the roost.
The action is woven with such showtune hits as “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “I Cain’t Say No,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “Out of My Dreams” and the title number. Hammerstein’s lyrics in “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” pop like nobody’s business due to a slow-mo tempo. While singing can be mannered, self-conscious and even shrill, these songs are indestructible.
The show’s famous dream sequence, not so much. Originally choreographed by Agnes de Mille as a ballet embodying Laurey’s desires and anxiety, the extended scene is reborn as a modern dance. Gabrielle Hamilton appears amid howling guitars in a white top that reads “Dream Baby Dream.” Nothing subtle there. The same goes for the extended jagged and jarring dance in which cowboy boots, like raindrops, fall from the sky. Is that sexually stirred Laurey waiting for the other shoe to drop? If so, it’s a bit too on-the-nose, no?
Jud’s death after Curly and Laurey wed is another head-scratcher. Jud dies after trying to kill his cowboy nemesis as written. Fish turns Jud’s demise into a blood-spattered assisted suicide. In its efforts to underline trumped-up justice already in the script, this revival concludes by wallowing in overstatement.
Still, this Oklahoma! deserves credit for out-of-the-box thinking and casting. It earns its exclamation point, and it knows it. That emphatic punctuation mark is the biggest thing on the Playbill. All things considered, there should also be a giant question mark.