This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

INK

(photo © Joan Marcus 2019)

Editor Larry Lamb (Jonny Lee Miller) takes over Rupert Murdoch’s Sun in Ink (photo © Joan Marcus 2019)

Who: Bertie Carvel, Jonny Lee Miller, David Wilson Barnes, Bill Buell, Andrew Durand, Eden Marryshow, Colin McPhillamy, Erin Neufer, Kevin Pariseau, Rana Roy, Michael Siberry, Robert Stanton, and Tara Summers
What: Ink on Broadway
Where: Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
When: Tuesday - Sunday through July 7, $79-$189
Why: At the beginning of James Graham’s Tony-nominated Ink, which takes place on Fleet Street in 1969–70, soon-to-be international media mogul Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) asks newspaper editor Larry Lamb (Jonny Lee Miller) what makes a good story. “Well, it’s the five ‘W’s, isn’t it,” he says, listing the first four — Who, What, Where, When — then hesitating before getting to the last one. “So what’s the fifth? The fifth ‘W’?” Murdoch implores. “Fifth ‘W’ I used to think was the most important, now I think it’s the least. Fifth ‘W’ is Why,” Lamb responds. Murdoch: “You think the least important question is ‘why’; I would have said that was the most important question.” Lamb: “Once you know ‘why’ something happened, the story’s over, it’s dead. Don’t answer why, a story can run and run, can run forever. And the other reason, actually, honestly, I think, is that there is no ‘Why?’ Most times. ‘Why’ suggests there’s a plan, that there is a point to things, when they happen and there’s not, there’s just not. Sometimes shit — just —happens. Only thing worth asking isn’t ‘why,’ it’s . . . ‘What next?’”

(photo © Joan Marcus 2019)

Larry Lamb (Jonny Lee Miller) and Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) check their progress in MTC newspaper tale (photo © Joan Marcus 2019)

Graham (Labour of Love, Privacy) and director Rupert Goold (King Charles III, American Psycho) follow that advice in the sparkling Manhattan Theatre Club presentation of the award-winning Almeida Theatre production, running at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through July 7. The play dives right into the Who, What, Where, and When as Murdoch decides to buy the failing Sun newspaper from the company that publishes the Mirror and hires exiled editor Lamb to run it. It’s thrilling to watch Lamb put together a ragtag staff, including news editor Brian McConnell (David Wilson Barnes), chief sub Ray Mills (Eden Marryshow), sports editor Frank Nicklin (Bill Buell), woman’s editor Joyce Hopkirk (Tara Summers), persnickety deputy editor Bernard Shrimsley (Robert Stanton), and novice photographer Beverley Goodway (Andrew Durand), as they attempt to not only put out a newspaper immediately but, within one year, surpass the Mirror in circulation, a ridiculously absurd proposition — but one that drives Lamb, Murdoch, and his devoted deputy chairman, Sir Alick McKay (Colin McPhillamy), who are willing to do just about whatever it takes to make it happen, much to the consternation of Mirror chairman Hugh Cudlipp (Michael Siberry) and editor Lee Howard (Marryshow), who worry about the integrity of their industry.

(photo © Joan Marcus 2019)

Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) checks in on the Sun in Tony-nominated Ink (photo © Joan Marcus 2019)

Two-time Olivier winner Goold adds glitter and flash to the proceedings, with the sexy Stephanie Rahn (Rana Roy) occasionally breaking out into song and dance with various characters, turning Bunny Christie’s multilevel, dark-gray, crowded stage into a hopping nightclub, with fun choreography by Lynne Page. Tony nominee Carvel (Matilda the Musical, The Hairy Ape), employing a slight hunch and an overly affected interpretation of Murdoch’s voice, and Miller (Elementary, Frankenstein), bold and forthright as Lamb, make a dynamic duo; even though we know how it’s all going to turn out — particularly how tabloids would present so-called news to the public — we root for them to succeed against the stodgy old guys who actually care about truth and quality. Jon Driscoll’s projections add color to the proceedings, primarily the familiar red of the Sun logo. The serious proceedings, the repercussions of which are still being felt today, with Murdoch’s ownership of such papers as the New York Post and such television stations as Fox News, President Trump’s favorite channel, are infused with a wickedly dry sense of humor; even the insert telling audience members to turn off their cellphones is like the front page of the Sun, blaring the headline: “Cellphone Humiliates Playgoer.”

KING LEAR ON BROADWAY

(photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Glenda Jackson wonders where it all went wrong in King Lear revival on Broadway (photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Cort Theatre
138 West 48th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 9, $35-$129
www.kinglearonbroadway.com

Theater aficionados would likely pay good money to watch the inimitable Glenda Jackson read the phone book, as the proverbial platitude goes. But director Sam Gold challenges that now-outdated cliché with his misguided production of King Lear, which boasts the remarkable actress and former longtime British MP as Shakespeare’s declining ruler. On the night I attended, early in the show a valet bringing Lear the crown stumbled and dropped the prop. Jackson let out an angry howl that echoed throughout the Cort Theatre in what looked to be an ad-lib, but it summed up everyone’s frustration with Gold’s handling of the tragedy. The usually dependable and insightful Tony and Obie winner (Fun Home, Circle Mirror Transformation) seems to be going out of his way to unnecessarily complicate virtually every aspect of this consistently awkward staging.

(photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

King Lear (Glenda Jackson) has something to say to his youngest daughter, Cordelia (Ruth Wilson) (photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

The story takes place in a gold-plated rectangular, horizontal space, with characters in relatively modern dress. (The set is by Miriam Buether, with costumes by Ann Roth.) Ruth Wilson is excellent as both Cordelia and the Fool, although it is sometimes hard to tell when she is one or the other. John Douglas Thompson is stalwart as Kent, his authoritative voice booming, but the rest of the cast seems lost, seeking Gold to guide them not unlike poor Tom (Sean Carvajal) leading his blinded father, Gloucester (Jayne Houdyshell), to the edge of a precipice. The Duke of Cornwall is portrayed by Russell Harvard, a deaf actor who is followed around by Michael Arden, who translates for him in American Sign Language. Philip Glass has composed a lovely score, performed by violinists Cenovia Cummins and Martin Agee, violist Chris Cardona, and cellist Stephanie Cummins; when they unobtrusively play in the far back corner, all is well, but later they come to the front and mingle with the actors, which is unnerving and off-putting. Goneril (Elizabeth Marvel) at first shows empathy for Cordelia, but that changes fast, leading to a sexual expression that made the audience gasp in horror. Pedro Pascal is ineffective as the devious Edmund, while Carvajal is too plain as his too-trusting half-brother, Edgar. The cast also includes Dion Johnstone as the Duke of Albany, Aisling O’Sullivan as a vicious Regan, Ian Lassiter as the King of France, and Matthew Maher as a creepy Oswald. Oh, and there are gunshots.

(photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Ruth Wilson, Glenda Jackson, and John Douglas Thompson are the bright spots in Sam Gold’s revival of King Lear (photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Fortunately, watching Jackson for nearly three and a half hours — she does take that long break at the beginning of the second act, and the play suffers even further in her absence — makes this Lear worth it; Jackson, now eighty-two, might be a wisp of a thing, but she radiates intense strength and greatness every step of the way. But be advised that this is not Deborah Warner’s 2016-17 version that took London by storm. I am no traditionalist by any means — for example, I adore what Daniel Fish has done with Oklahoma! — but Gold has deconstructed the play only to reconstruct it with, dare I say, a Lear-like madness that just too often is baffling if not downright annoying. New York has seen many a Lear over the last dozen years — Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Derek Jacobi, John Lithgow, Frank Langella, Sir Antony Sher, Michael Pennington, and Sam Waterston — and Jackson is a worthy addition to that list, but it is telling that she received neither a Tony nor a Drama Desk nomination for her performance, and the production also did not get nods for Best Revival. It’s like an imperfect storm, with Jackson at the center, trying to survive the downpour, along with the rest of us.

BURN THIS

(photo by Matthew Murphy)

Adam Driver and Keri Russell star in Broadway revival of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Hudson Theatre
139-141 West 44th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 14, $59 - $315
855-801-5876
www.thehudsonbroadway.com

Adam Driver is scorching hot and Keri Russell sizzles in Michael Mayer’s otherwise surprisingly lukewarm revival of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, which opened last week at the Hudson Theatre. Oscar and Emmy nominee Driver is deserving of a Tony nod for his ferociously physical, incendiary performance as Pale, a Jersey restaurant manager unable to deal with the tragic death of his younger brother Robbie, a gay dancer who was killed in a boating accident with his lover, Dom. The play is set in 1987 and takes place in a huge industrial loft apartment in Lower Manhattan where Robbie lived with fellow dancer Anna (Russell), a straight woman in a relationship with successful screenwriter Burton (Tony nominee David Furr), and Larry (Tony nominee Brandon Uranowitz), a wisecracking gay man who works in advertising. One night Pale shows up drunk, loudly complaining about New York City, parking, phone messages, new shoes, social politeness, and anything else that comes to mind, rattling on without a filter. He constantly uses words about heat when talking about himself and his life, declaring that his “feet are in boiling water,” he has a toaster oven for a stomach, his normal temperature is about 110, and it’s hot enough in the apartment for them to “bake pizza.” He says he’s “a roving fireman. Very healthy occupation. I’m puttin’ out somebody’s else’s fire. I’m puttin’ out my own. . . . Or sometimes you just let it burn.”

Despite her better judgment, Anna, who is branching out as a choreographer, is strangely attracted to Pale, who is a stark contrast to the more self-contained Burton, who lives in Canada and is always talking about the cold, including snow and “glacier activity”; the only time he brings up heat is when he tells Anna about her upcoming dance, “Make it as personal as you can. Believe me, you can’t imagine a feeling everyone hasn’t had. Make it personal, tell the truth, and then write ‘Burn this’ on it.” Here Wilson is describing his own process in writing the play; it was indeed personal, inspired partly by the death of a friend’s brother, as well as the AIDS epidemic claiming the lives of so many New York artists. He wrote “Burn this” at the top of every page until he realized it should be the title of the play.

(photo by Matthew Murphy)

Burton (David Furr), Anna (Keri Russell), and Larry (Brandon Uranowitz) have a brief moment to cool down in Burn This at the Hudson Theatre (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Despite the strong cast, led by Lortel Award winner Driver (BlacKkKlansman, Look Back in Anger), whose body commands the stage with an intense, dangerous fury, and Golden Globe winner and Emmy nominee Russell (The Americans, Fat Pig), who has a sweet tenderness as Anna, the play never catches fire. Derek McLane’s set is lovely, with large back windows that look out on the city, an outside world that the characters can’t reach yet, and Clint Ramos’s costumes are sexy and alluring, from Pale’s sharp suits to Anna’s slinky dresses and hapi coat. The unending references to hot and cold, fire and ice grow tiresome, including the leitmotif of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”; would Larry really sing that? Pulitzer Prize winner Wilson (Talley’s Folly, Angels Fall) and Tony winner Mayer (Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) also incorporated Springsteen songs into a 1984 revival of 1965’s Balm in Gilead. The play made its Broadway debut in 1987, running for more than a year at the Plymouth Theatre, with John Malkovich as Pale and a Tony-winning Joan Allen as Anna. A 2002 revival at the Signature paired Edward Norton and Catherine Keener. In order for the play to work, it has to have the fire and passion at least reminiscent of A Streetcar Named Desire, but this production, even with its powerful moments and strong performances, too often simmers when it needs to blister and blaze.

BE MORE CHILL

(photo by Maria Baranova)

Jeremy Heere (Will Roland) takes a pill to make him more popular in Be More Chill (photo by Maria Baranova)

Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 29, $49- $199
bemorechillmusical.com

While I sat mouth agape at the jaw-dropping inanity that is Be More Chill on Broadway, I looked around at the teenage girls sitting all around me. I was genuinely envious of the sheer glee they were experiencing, their eyes transfixed in front of them, their mouths singing along with every one of the songs. I am not the target audience of this runaway juggernaut, this little show that could, which is breaking attendance records at the Lyceum Theatre. (However, in another part of my life, I work in children’s books, for a company that has published several books by Ned Vizzini, whose 2004 YA novel is the basis for the musical, so I’m no mere disinterested curmudgeon.) That said, the production is a disaster. The cast is energetic, but director Stephen Brackett’s pacing is woefully inconsistent, Joe Tracz’s book is flagrantly flawed, Joe Iconis’s music and lyrics are wholly drab and forgettable, and Chase Brock’s choreography is slipshod and clumsy. The climax is so feeble I wanted to hide my head in embarrassment for everyone onstage. But none of that matters with this review-proof phenomenon, which is like a musical version of Saved by the Bell, with Screech in the lead.

(photo by Maria Baranova)

Jason Tam stars as the SQUIP in Broadway transfer of Be More Chill (photo by Maria Baranova)

As has been well documented, Be More Chill failed to make much of an impact when it premiered at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 2015, but the cast recording became a surprise hit, resulting in a sold-out run at the Signature Theatre last year and the Broadway transfer, with much of the cast intact since its beginning. The plot follows the trajectory of high school student Jeremy Heere (Will Roland), who is lured by bad boy Rich Guranski (Gerard Canonico) into taking a pill known as the SQUIP (which stands for “super quantum unit intel processor” and is personified by the devilishly handsome Jason Tam) in order to make him more confident, popular, and cool. Upon the SQUIP’s commands, Jeremy starts ignoring his best friend, the nerdy Michael Mell (George Salazar), and hanging out with stylish mean girls Chloe Valentine (Katlyn Carlson) and Brooke Lohst (Lauren Marcus) to make his crush, Christine Canigula (Stephanie Hsu), jealous, while she flirts with class superstar Jake Dillinger (Britton Smith) as they all participate in the school play, A Midsummer Nightmare (about Zombies). Jeremy also has to deal with his sad, lonely father (Jason “SweetTooth” Williams), who spends most of his days at home in his underwear and bathrobe. As the pill takes hold, Jeremy sacrifices his personal identity and true self – and everything around him falls apart.

(photo by Maria Baranova)

Tiffany Mann nearly blows the roof off the Lyceum Theatre as Jenna Nolan in Be More Chill (photo by Maria Baranova)

The musical hits many current hot-button teen issues, including sexual orientation, depression, bullying, suicidal thoughts, divorced parents, drug and alcohol abuse, sex, and more, but none of them is examined in any realistic way, instead becoming clichés and caricatures. Beowulf Boritt’s glam, ever-changing set is amusing, Bobby Frederick Tilley’s costumes are fun (especially at the Halloween party, with Jeremy going as one of the hive-minded Borg), and Tiffany Mann blasts it into hyperspace as Jenna Nolan, but the rest of the show is a major drag. Sadly, Vizzini killed himself in 2013 at the age of thirty-two; in addition, “Jeremy” is the title character in the 1992 Pearl Jam song inspired by the real-life suicide of a high school student. Unfortunately, a magic pill was not able to save them; nor can anything save this show, despite its breakout popularity. And popularity, particularly in high school, can be a double-edged sword.

WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Heidi Schreck examines the US Constitution in Broadway transfer of hit play (photo by Joan Marcus)

Helen Hayes Theater
240 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 24, $49-$169
constitutionbroadway.com

The first time I saw Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, during its run last year at New York Theatre Workshop, it was the day that the Judiciary Committee had voted to advance the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court Justice to the Senate floor. A somber atmosphere hung over the crowd, which was acknowledged by Schreck, who persevered with hope and humor. The show has now made a wholly successful transfer from the 199-seat NYTW to Broadway, where it is packing them into Second Stage’s 597-seat Helen Hayes Theater. And when I saw it there earlier this month, the foreboding cloud of doom and gloom was gone, replaced by an innate faith that America was going to be okay, as Schreck and the audience were in better spirits, often downright giddy, even as Schreck’s tale goes to dark, intimate places, all the while maintaining a steady focus on exactly “what the Constitution means to me” when “me” is a woman — or anyone except a white man.

In the mid-1980s, Schreck, living in the “abortion-free zone” of Wenatchee, Washington, earned money for college by participating in debates in American Legion Halls about the Constitution. The hundred-minute show re-creates some of those debates, focusing on the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, as Brooklyn-based actress, playwright, and television writer Schreck (Grand Concourse, The Consultant) shifts back and forth between her younger self and the woman she is today, able to intelligently face her demons and the mistakes she made, as well as celebrate the triumphs. She is supported by Mike Iveson (The Sound & the Fury, Plenty) as an American Legion Hall moderator and either Thursday Williams or Rosdley Ciprian, high school students who challenge her in a live debate. Rachel Hauck’s set remains intact, consisting of a few chairs and small tables, a central podium, and three sides of a wall displaying more than a hundred framed photographs of legionnaires, uniformly white men in caps. “This hall is not — it’s not a naturalistic representation,” Schreck says. “I got my friend Rachel to help me reconstruct it from my dreams, so I guess it’s like one of those crime victim drawings.” Obie-winning director Oliver Butler (The Amateurs, The Open House) doesn’t make any major changes for the Broadway transfer.

Thursday Williams debates Heidi Schreck in (photo by Joan Marcus)

Thursday Williams debates Heidi Schreck in What the Constitution Means to Me (photo by Joan Marcus)

Since I first saw the show at NYTW, there continues to be threats to the Constitution, which Schreck emphasizes “is a living document. That is what is so beautiful about it. It is a living, warmblooded, steamy document.” Using historical facts and personal anecdotes, Schreck connects to the audience while exploring the ramifications of the numerous interpretations of specific rights and liberties, taking on the white patriarchy and honoring the empowerment of women in the country while also delving into hot-button issues. Discussing Clause Four of the Fourteenth Amendment, she explains, “This is the most miraculous clause in our entire Constitution. It says that we all must be treated equally, that we cannot be discriminated against on the basis of race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, or immigration status. It actually uses the word ‘person,’ not ‘citizen.’ Which means that if you are an undocumented immigrant, you must be given all the protections of Clause Three, the due process clause. You cannot be locked up without a fair trial. You cannot have anything — or anyone — seized from you.” Schreck’s innate happiness in talking about the Constitution is infectious; she was so filled with glee that at one point, crossing the stage over to Iveson, she nearly fell onto him; the two of them broke out in laughter, as did the audience. It was one of several spontaneous moments in the show — which is scripted but includes significant room for improvisation — that will have you leaving the theater with a smile on your face even as you worry about how the Constitution is under attack on a nearly daily basis.

AIN’T TOO PROUD — THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE TEMPTATIONS

(photo by Matthew Murphy)

The story of the Temptations comes to Broadway in jukebox musical (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Imperial Theatre
249 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 24, $49-$189
www.ainttooproudmusical.com

Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations purports to tell the story behind the famed R&B group that recorded many of Motown’s most popular and successful songs. But director Des McAnuff, a veteran of such other Broadway jukebox bio-musicals as the misbegotten Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and the runaway hit Jersey Boys (as well as Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who’s Tommy), and book writer Dominique Morisseau, a rising playwright who has written the Detroit Trilogy (Detroit ’67, Skeleton Crew, Paradise Blue), never approach cloud nine in this standard show that goes by the numbers. The story is based on the memoir of Temptations founder Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin), who narrates the chronological tale, from his childhood to the present day. After serving a stint in prison, he is determined to go straight, making his way in the music world.

He puts together a talented group of singers he initially calls Otis Williams and the Distants, then the Elgins, and finally, following an “accidental” meeting with Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) in a men’s room, the Temptations: Williams, the deep-voiced Melvin Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson), band choreographer Paul Williams (James Harkness), and up-and-coming superstars Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope) and David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes). Gordy teams them first with songwriter Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson) and later Norman Whitfield (Jarvis B. Manning Jr.) as they eventually tear up the charts. But success also brings a clash of egos, drugs and alcohol, womanizing, domestic abuse, and the inability to maintain family relationships because of the constant touring, resulting in a revolving door of Temptations except for Otis, who remains throughout.

(photo by Matthew Murphy)

The Temptations are ready to take the music world by storm in Ain’t Too Proud (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Sergio Trujillo’s choreography captures the Temptations’ skillful movements, with Sykes eliciting shrieks of excitement from the audience for his spectacular moves, and Harold Wheeler’s orchestrations do justice to the Motown originals, from “My Girl,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” to “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me),” “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” and “I Can’t Get Next to You,” although some are condensed for time or broken up in the narrative. There are also hits from the Supremes, the Cadillacs, the Five Satins, and others that sometimes feel out of place as McAnuff and Morisseau try to provide musical context. The main group’s backup vocals are excellent, but the lead singers often fall short; it’s impossible to expect that the Broadway actors will reach the heights achieved by, for example, Kendricks and Ruffin, but several songs suffer for it. The story addresses the civil rights movement and the dire socioeconomic situation in Detroit in a bumpy manner, almost as if an afterthought, and the projections by Peter Nigrini are often repetitive and hard to figure out as they are shown on Robert Brill’s ever-changing set, which boasts a conveyor belt to help props and characters enter and exit.

Baskin (Memphis, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) is amiable and warm as Otis, a charming, principled man who chooses fame over family — Baskin is so comfortable in the role that he sweetly replied a few times to a woman in the audience who called out like she was at a church service — with a superb Rashidra Scott (Beautiful, Sister Act) as his wife, Josephine, and Shawn Bowers as his son, Lamont. Jackson (Motown: The Musical) is lovable as Franklin, a big man whose impossibly deep voice resonates through the theater and rattles in your bones. Also in the cast are Saint Aubyn and E. Clayton Cornelious as replacement Temptations Dennis Edwards and Richard Street, respectively; Nasia Thomas as Motown star Tammi Terrell, Florence Ballard of the Supremes, and Franklin’s stern mother; Joshua Morgan as the Temptations’ longtime manager, the white and Jewish Shelly Berger; Candice Marie Woods as Diana Ross; and Taylor Symone Jackson as Mary Wilson and Otis’s first manager. Paul Tazewell’s costumes and Charles G. LaPointe’s hair and wig design are right-on. Ain’t Too Proud looks and sounds good, but it fails to dig deep enough under the surface of one of R&B’s most beloved and seminal groups.

OKLAHOMA!

(© Little Fang Photo)

People might say Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Curly McLain (Damon Daunno) are in love in Oklahoma! (© Little Fang Photo)

Circle in the Square Theatre
1633 Broadway at 50th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 1, $69.50 - $169.50
oklahomabroadway.com

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.

(© Little Fang Photo)

Daniel Fish delivers a dark Oklahoma! at Circle in the Square (© Little Fang Photo)

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.

(© Little Fang Photo)

Gabrielle Hamilton opens the second act with a thrilling solo about the American dream (© Little Fang Photo)

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.