NEW YORK — Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic 1943 musical has been revived on Broadway and won the 2019 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical for its innovative new staging and reported daring look at this familiar story of farmers and homesteaders in the territory of Oklahoma as they live, work together, and find love. Director Daniel Fish has gone back to the original subject matter to bring out a gritty, honest, and provocative production.
Now, to be honest, Oklahoma! has never been one of my favorite shows. I have often thought that the treatment of Jud (played in this production by Patrick Vaill) by Curly (played by Damon Daunno) is certainly what we would now term bullying. However, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to critique this production because of the word of mouth I had heard about Fish’s interpretation, and I looked forward to seeing what a fresh perspective would do to some of these story lines.
Fish did not disappoint. My before mentioned concern of the story line between Curly and Jud was handled with such an artistic decision that left me haunted as I walked back to my hotel. From the lighting by Scott Zielinski and the amazing sound design by Drew Levy, that scene played almost like a well-done horror movie. There were added elements along that theme, especially the ending, which still haunts me. While it was a bit shocking in nature, perhaps Oklahoma! should have always been told this way.
The chemistry between Daunno as Curly and Rebecca Naomi Jones as Laurey was unmistakable, but this chemistry was accented by the amazing and interesting choices of orchestrations. The live orchestra resides onstage and is a small number of seven supremely talented players who are a part of the full action throughout the show. This onstage orchestra adds a level of connection to both the cast and the audience that I have found rare and distinct in the theatre, and certainly more rare indeed in productions this large in scale.
Aunt Eller, played by Katie Thompson, had a voice of gold and a charismatic wisdom that she carried throughout the production as it delved into deeper and darker territory. Being from Utah, I had been told a lot of this production: how it was “not my mother’s Oklahoma” and that it had veered too far from the original subject matter, but I respectfully disagree. Fish and the creative team must have done an extensive study of the original subject matter, and perhaps what we are more uncomfortable with is that we are perhaps seeing it more clearly now instead of brushing the more “unsavory” parts under the rug.
Watching Tony Award winner Ali Stroker live was an absolute treat. Not only does she have an unmatched vocal prowess, but she also has a characterization of Ado Annie that is playful at times and that also encaptures the innocence that is at the heart of the show. The fact that the show offered chili and fresh cornbread at intermission was only an added bonus.
The production was not without its imperfections. While the ballet sequence was the best I have ever seen and the skills of understudy lead dancer Demetia Hopkins-Greene were unparalleled, the sequence is long and cumbersome, and I still struggle to completely understand the concept.
The only other thing I can complain about is the sad fact that this show is closing in January. If you happen to be traveling to New York before then, I encourage you to head on over to Circle in the Square. And for those of us out west, I hope Fish’s production tours soon.