A Sexy, Angry Oklahoma! at St. Ann's Warehouse
Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno star in a radical reworking of Rodgers & Hammerstein.
The a cappella strains of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" have stunned audiences for 75 years. Those expecting glitz and glamour from the first collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were said to have been quite surprised when the lights rose on Oklahoma! in 1943 and the audience saw a lone cowboy standing there instead of a chorus line of scantily clad women.
Spectators at St. Ann's Warehouse are likely to be just as shocked when they arrive to see experimental theater director Daniel Fish's new take on the classic musical. Scenic designer Laura Jellinek has turned the cavernous theater into a plywood social hall, shiny streamers hanging from the ceiling, a picnic of chili and cornbread at intermission, and racks of shotguns hanging on the wall. A seven-member bluegrass band tunes up instruments like the banjo and pedal steel guitar. When the cast finally enters – numbering 11 in total – we probably have a similar reaction to the original audience members in how different this production is from what we were expecting.
Oklahoma! is considered by many to be one of the first fully integrated musicals; that is to say, one of the first modern musicals to seamlessly weave storytelling, song, and dance to create a cohesive whole. In this production, Fish is deconstructing the work down to its bones, bringing out flavor notes in the text that we've, in the past, willfully chosen to ignore in service of enjoying a charming love story with pleasant songs.
There are two love triangles at the core of the piece. Cowboy Curly McLain (Damon Daunno) and farm girl Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones) have it bad for each other but won't admit it. Laurey is also being pursued by the poor, disturbed farmhand Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill), and agrees to go to the box social with him out of spite for Curly, despite her misgivings. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the flirtatious Ado Annie (a ferocious Ali Stroker, in a star-making turn) must choose between her betrothed, dim farmer Will Parker (James Davis) and wealthy, worldly peddler Ali Hakim (Michael Nathanson).
In telling these two stories about the vastly different treatment we as Americans give outsiders depending on their status in the community, Fish has emphasized the aspects of the piece that speak to 2018, particularly when it comes to Jud. It's impossible not to feel your blood curdle as Jones's Laurey tells Mary Testa's frankly funny Aunt Eller, "I'm afraid to tell Jud I won't go…He'd do sumpin terrible. He makes me shiver ever' time he gits clost to me." From the second Vaill's unnerving Jud walks onstage, exactly fitting the profile of what Laurey is describing, you know full well why she's frightened, why he's an outcast, and how Nathanson's Ali Hakim, bearing a megawatt smile, can be so beloved by all.
Statements like Laurey's tend to go unnoticed when the show is being played as a traditional musical comedy, and what makes this production so fascinating is the way we recognize those more incendiary elements as if for the first time. Fish illustrates these moments with certain directorial flourishes. A menacing electric guitar riff underscores the mention of a kaleidoscope that hides a knife. Lighting designer Scott Zielinski plunges the auditorium into complete darkness when the scene shifts to Jud's hideaway. We notice previously unseen textures just about everywhere.
Thanks to the performances, the same extends to Hammerstein's lyrics. Daunno, as charming and handsome a Curly as we could want, and Jones, a haunted Laurey who plays her cards close to the vest (even when she shouldn't), have a palpable chemistry that turns "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" and "People Will Say We're in Love" into ballads of sexual frustration and longing. Jones's a cappella "Out of My Dreams," capping the first act, is intoxicating in the way it expresses her desire to escape from her life. Daniel Kluger's orchestrations for an eight-piece bluegrass band are particularly thrilling in the way they rescue Rodgers's iconic score from the trappings of tradition.
Not all the elements here work. It's nice to hear the score performed more or less unamplified, but Drew Levy's sound design doesn't take the cavernous St. Ann's ceiling into consideration, and too many of the words get lost. Fish's physical staging, with the audience on either side of the playing space, doesn't always allow for great sight lines. Terese Wadden's costumes of jeans and flannels (with colorful dresses for the women during the box social) are so ordinary that they could be featured in an Old Navy ad. And John Heginbotham's choreography, particularly an abstract dream ballet danced and galloped by the hardworking Gabrielle Hamilton and dancers from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, feels like it's been developed in haste.
Ultimately, though, Fish's excavation of Oklahoma! is essential viewing for any musical theater fan who thinks they know everything about this particular show. In a text that has grown to be perceived through the decades as corny, Fish is cutting through the treacle to find its brutal core. You'll never look at it the same way ever again.