It’s just so sexy.
That’s how I described Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! as staged by experimental theater director Daniel Fish when I first saw his production at Bard College’s SummerScape festival in the summer of 2015. You don’t really think of Oklahoma! as being erotically charged; in fact, one of the most infamous comments about its original out-of-town tryout, back when it was still called Away We Go, read, “No legs, no jokes, no chance.”
But Fish’s provocative version is different. He has brushed away the dust from this beloved classic, uncovering the discord and primal lust that’s always been hiding in the shadows of Hammerstein’s script. It is an Oklahoma! for an audience that believes that classic musicals should be as open to reinterpretation as the plays of Shakespeare. It is angry and dark and surging with pheromones. Seeing it back then, I was obsessed.
Four years later, Fish’s incendiary and electrifying Oklahoma! has landed on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre, not only proving that The Secret actually works, but that there are still some producers (in this case, Eva Price) who are willing to take risks. This isn’t a show for everyone — “not your grandma’s Oklahoma!” is the marketing department’s reductive party line — and there’s very little middle ground.
Happily, Fish hasn’t sacrificed anything about his vision for the Broadway audience. There’s no ensemble dancing Agnes de Mille-style choreography for this company of 12. As at Bard and St. Ann’s Warehouse (where it ran last fall), scenic designer Laura Jellinek has transformed the space into a social hall, with colorful streamers and Christmas lights dangling from the ceiling. Emphasizing the communal aspect of theater, the audience is treated to chili and cornbread at intermission. Most notably, a terrific seven-member bluegrass band led by Nathan Koci plays Daniel Kluger’s marvelous reorchestration of the score, which utilizes instruments like the banjo and pedal steel guitar to give it a countrified feel. Fish pares the show down to its barest essentials: words and music.
At the core are two love stories: Cowboy Curly McLain (the dreamy Damon Daunno) and farm girl Laurey Williams (a haunting Rebecca Naomi Jones) have it bad for each other but won’t admit it. At the same time, unnerving farmhand Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) pursues Laurey’s hand. Sticking it to Curly, she agrees to go to the town box social with Jud, despite her obvious reservations. Meanwhile, coquettish Ado Annie (the hilarious Ali Stroker) must choose between her naive betrothed, farmer Will Parker (an adorably dim James Davis), and worldly peddler Ali Hakim (Will Brill as a wonderful comic foil).
Fish envisions the text through a distinctly contemporary American lens, focusing on the way we treat both the outsiders we like and the outsiders we don’t. Jud is a lone wolf, the kind of guy whose skulking around in a hoodie (Terese Wadden’s costumes are spot-on) would make you cross the street. Watching Vaill’s unsettling yet surprisingly pitiable performance, you understand exactly why your blood curdles when Laurey describes her fears about him to Mary Testa’s frank and blunt Aunt Eller. It’s obvious why the entire town eventually turns on Jud, while at the same time, it wholeheartedly embraces Brill’s charming Persian salesman, who wears sharp duds and bears silly trinkets from the west.
What makes Fish’s take especially noteworthy is the way we’re made to see all these complexities of character as if for the first time. They’ve always been there, of course, but unless you’ve got a menacing electric guitar riff underscoring the presentation of a kaleidoscope that hides a knife, they may go overlooked. It’s even scarier as lighting designer Scott Zielinski plunges the auditorium into total darkness when the scene shifts to Jud’s smokehouse, while Daunno’s Curly, a golden child who knows he can do no wrong, tries to convince Jud to kill himself.
The few problems I had with the production at St. Ann’s have generally been fixed. The lyrics are more easily understood now that sound designer Drew Levy has perfected the various levels of amplification. Choreographer John Heginbotham has smoothed out Laurey’s modernist nightmare ballet, performed as a solo by the jaw-dropping dancer Gabrielle Hamilton. With a less vast playing space at the Circle, the chemistry between Daunno and Jones is more palpable, too. Through longing glances and faces that are just a little too close, you get the impression that these are hot-blooded characters who cain’t say no.
On Broadway, Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! has reached its full potential. Sitting with rapt attention for three hours, I felt as though I was watching a brand-new musical, not one that just turned 76. It’s one of the best revivals I’ve ever seen. And it’s just so sexy.