When Oklahoma opened on Broadway in 1943 it became an unprecedented success. It was a musical about American ideals and the beauty of the simple American life in the wild west, moreover it was just what America needed to boost morale during the war. We’ve come a long time since those days though, and some of the ideals glorified in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! have become outdated. How then, could you mount a production of such a show in 2019? That must’ve been the question that director Daniel Fish asked himself when he started on this production, and I’m so glad he found the answer.
Oklahoma is set in a time wherein the state has not yet joined the Union and where cowboys rule society. In a small community of farmers lives cowboy Curly who’s in love with the farmgirl Laurey, they tease each other a lot. The conflict of the show centers around an annual charity auction where the women of the town sell lunch baskets for lunch dates with the men of the town. For Laurey’s basket, Curly finds a rival in the hired farmhand Jud Fry. Jud works for Laurey’s Aunt Eller and hides a lot of disturbing secrets in the smokehouse he lives in. The conflict between the three lovers gets violent near the end of the play and in an environment where threats get flung around like guns. It might not be safe for either of them. The intimate and dangerous love story of Laurey and Curly gets interwoven with the comedic antics of Will Parker who wants to marry Ado Annie but keeps losing the money he needs to get her dads approval, while her dad sells her off to a local Persian peddler.
They also let a small percentage of the audience sit at tables on stage so they are literally a part of the performance. This way the show gets a very intimate feeling from the start.
In order to tone down the grandeur that is given to the sound and music of Rodgers and Hammerstein Daniel Fish cuts out the ensemble and with Daniel Kluger (orchestrations) he makes sure the music feels very intimate and small as well. Daniel Fish recognizes the feel of the small community, the social control, and chooses to stage the show in the round to make us a part of the community of the show. Laura Jellinek, the scenic designer, amplifies this feeling by letting the set grow out from the stage and around the auditorium. The woodpanels that form the stage and background are echoed in the walls behind the seating area. They also let a small percentage of the audience sit at tables on stage so they are literally a part of the performance. This way the show gets a very intimate feeling from the start. The lighting design by Scott Zielinski also plays a big part in this as he chooses to keep the house-lights on most of the time. The lighting design rarely focuses on certain performers exclusively but more on the fact that we are all a part of the story, we’re witnesses. It also works both ways, when Scott and Daniel do choose to focus the audience on a certain aspect of the performance or a certain scene in particular it really hits the audience by contrast. This becomes mostly apparent in the mesmerizing ‘Dream Ballet.’ The ‘Dream Ballet’ has been a part of the show since the beginning but the way it is used and choreographed within this show, amazing choreography by John Heginbotham, it stuns the audience when they have returned from intermission.
Because the show is staged in the round and the cast is on stage almost the entire show there is no place for the actors to hide, they have to keep character every single minute.
With such an amazing director and designing team one might forget the acting of the show itself but not with Oklahoma!. The acting on display in this show is phenomenal, it has to be. Because the show is staged in the round and the cast is on stage almost the entire show there is no place for the actors to hide, they have to keep character every single minute. At my performance Denver Milord was on as Curly instead of Damon Daunno, but he stole the show nonetheless. Charismatic when needed but also insecure and scared he might lose Laurey. Rebecca Naomi Jones, known for originating Eurydice off-Broadway, plays Laurey in a very modern way. Her Laurey isn’t just some girl waiting to be whisked away, she is a person not a property and she expects Curly to go through effort to earn her affection. Her aunt, Aunt Eller, is played by Mary Testa and she commands the stage and the audience. You don’t mess with her as gets very apparent during the auction and especially during the court-scene at the end. Without giving too much away; she turns a scene that would have normally been met with understanding from the audience in a western-style stand-off. Do we go along with her? Both James Davis and Ali Stroker do exceptionally well as the comedic couple, Ali does such a good job even that you might tend to forget she’s doing it al from a wheel chair. It’s clear why she won the Tony for Best Actress in a musical. All the other actors do a fine job complementing the acting of the main characters by knowing when to jump on a punchline and when to be understated to let the text speak for itself. The last performance I want to talk about is Patrick Vaill’s portrayal of Jud Fry. He builds him up as a very menacing person by never showing who the character truly is, the one moment he is a threatening villain and the other he is a disturbed misunderstood farmhand. His performance gets an assist from the directing and staging for sure, but his performance makes the character.
After this limited engagement on Broadway this show is set to go on tour and I hope everyone gets to see the show as I did. Daniel Fish revived a classic by reflecting on its morals by todays standards and it worked out magnificently. I hope there are some young creatives in the audience at these performances that take note: this is how you revive a classic that might represent problematic morals and ideals. You don’t change the text but you let the staging and the actors work to reflect today’s morals on the text. Well done, Daniel, well done.
OKLAHOMA! seen on 9/14/2019 at the Circle in the Square theater NY.
MUSIC BY RICHARD RODGERS, BOOK AND LYRICS BY OSCAR HAMMERSTEIN II
BASED ON THE PLAY GREEN GROW THE LILACS BY LYNN RIGGS
ORIGINAL CHOREOGRAPHY BY AGNES DE MILLE, ORCHESTRATIONS & ARRANGEMENTS AND MUSIC SUPERVISION DANIEL KLUGER
CHOREOGRAPHY BY JOHN HEGINBOTHAM, SCENIC DESIGN BY LAURA JELLINEK
COSTUME DESIGN BY TERESE WADDEN, LIGHTING DESIGN BY SCOTT ZIELINSKI
SOUND DESIGN BY DREW LEVY
PROJECTION DESIGN BY JOSHUA THORSON, MUSIC DIRECTION BY NATHAN KOCI DIRECTED BY DANIEL FISH