Circle in the Square Theatre
1633 Broadway at 50th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 1, $69.50 - $169.50
Daniel Fish’s extraordinary adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Oklahoma! has come sweepin’ down on Broadway following a much-lauded sold-out run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, opening last night at Circle in the Square. It’s the best of a recent influx of tweaked golden age musicals that update their take on misogyny and inequality between men and women, including My Fair Lady, Carousel, and Kiss Me, Kate. Fish has created a masterful retelling of the 1943 original, immersing the audience in the optimism that came with the southern territory becoming a state in 1906 — but uncovering a deep layer of darkness in the rich farmland soil. The theater has been turned into a communal hoedown, with some audience members sitting at long wooden tables on the stage opposite the characters; on the tables are red crockpots as if everyone is about to have a picnic — and indeed, at intermission, the audience lines up for a bowl of vegetarian chili and cornbread. Laura Jellinek’s stage is otherwise bare, with a pit at one end where the small band performs, a mural of a prairie landscape at the other, and many well-stocked gun racks on the walls surrounding the audience, threatening violence at any moment. The house lights are on for much of the show, except for two key times when lighting designer Scott Zielinski switches them off, bathing the theater in near-total pitch-blackness, only the red Exit signs visible. The lights above the stage shine through colorful bunting running across the ceiling, signaling a celebration, but it is a muted one, as Fish has a lot to say about the American dream amid all of this hopefulness in a still-young country.
A box social is coming up, in which the men of the town bid on “hamper” meals made by the women, followed by a square dance. Goofy cowboy Curly McLain (Damon Daunno) wants to go with the serious Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones), a beauty considered the catch of the community, but she has already agreed to attend the dance with the creepy Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill), a hired hand working on her Aunt Eller’s (Mary Testa) farm; resembling Theon Greyjoy from Game of Thrones, he is an intense man who looks as if he’s going to explode at any second and do some very bad things. Meanwhile, the clueless Will Parker (James Davis) is courting the free-spirited Ado Annie (Ali Stroker), who has developed the hots for traveling peddler Ali Hakim (Will Brill), who doesn’t know what he’s getting into. The hoi polloi also includes federal marshal Cord Elam (Anthony Cason); Ado Annie’s father, judge Andrew Carnes (Mitch Tebo); Gertie Cummings (Mallory Portnoy), who is attracted to Curly and has a ridiculous laugh; and Mike (Will Mann), a big guy who spends a lot of time watching the proceedings.
Much of Agnes de Mille’s original choreography has been cut, as John Heginbotham has created new movement for several scenes, most importantly the second set opener, in which Gabrielle Hamilton performs a long, powerful modern-dance solo to a screeching instrumental medley. Wearing a white shirt that says, “Dream Baby Dream,” referencing a song by glam punk duo Suicide (and covered by Bruce Springsteen), she furiously runs, jumps, and twirls across the stage, stopping often to make direct eye contact with people in the audience, almost accusingly, raising issues of gender and race as she questions the promise of equal opportunity in America, her deep breaths echoing through the space.
Fish (White Noise, The Source), well respected for his experimental works, primarily sticks to Oscar Hammerstein II’s book, although the ending is significantly altered to comment on the current state of one critical debate in the nation. Richard Rodgers’s score is gorgeously played by a country bluegrass band, expertly orchestrated by Daniel Kluger, with conductor and music director Nathan Koci on accordion and drums, Joe Brent on mandolin and electric guitar, Brett Parnell on pedal steel guitar, Hilary Hawke on banjo, Sarah Goldfeather on violin, Leah Coloff on cello, and Eleonore Oppenheim on bass. Joshua Thorson’s projections are not necessary, part of a trend of shows using large-scale live imagery that is all Ivo van Hove’s fault. Drew Lovey’s sound works well, particularly during the two scenes that take place in darkness.
But Fish doesn’t leave out the exhilarating joy that is Oklahoma!, which was based on the 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, debuted on Broadway in 1943, won two Oscars for Fred Zinnemann’s 1955 film, and has previously been revived on the Great White Way in 1979 and 2002. Songs such as “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” and “People Will Say We’re in Love” don’t sound old-fashioned in the least, and Stroker (Spring Awakening, Glee), rolling around in her wheelchair with an infectious glee, blasts out “I Can’t Say No,” taking ownership of her decisions as a sexually aware woman. Daunno (The Lucky Ones, Hadestown) and Jones (Significant Other, Big Love) excel in a battle of wills, while Vaill (Macbeth, Peter Pan) is chilling in a role previously played by Howard Da Silva, Shuler Hensley, and Rod Steiger. The ever-reliable Testa (Wicked, Queen of the Mist) holds down the fort as the sensible Aunt Eller. Don’t be scared off by the doom and gloom; Fish will still have you leaving the theater with magical music filling your head, even as you reconsider certain elements of a familiar story and how it relates to America in 2019.