Most Jade Sphinx readers will have seen the film version of Oklahoma! or, perhaps, a Broadway revival or regional production. Oklahoma! is not only a classic Broadway musical, it is perhaps the key musical, in that it was the first to incorporate song and dance into the story arc. Prior to Oklahoma!, the plot of musicals went on hold while songs took center stage; it took the genius of Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) to realize that music and dance are also a form of narrative.
So it was with great interest that Your Correspondent saw the new, much-lauded revival at Bard SummerScape, on view till July 19. Most people remember Oklahoma! as one of the sunniest of musicals, and most people would be in for a surprise with this production which is being touted as gritty and darker. For Your Correspondent this would normally mean stay away. But though there is a great deal here to offend purists, it is a worthy and thought-provoking production that is not to be missed. The change in tone succeeds in making Oklahoma! a more thought-provoking than toe-tapping experience, and patrons leave discussing motivation rather than just humming familiar standards.
Directed by Daniel Fish, Oklahoma! is staged in the round, with the audience seated at long deal tables in a room decorated for the show’s closing neighborhood social. (Chili and lemonade are served during intermission!) The score – usually lush and orchestral – is strategically reduced to a country band to increase regional flavor. And Curley, played winningly by Damon Daunno, often accompanies himself on guitar to smart effect. (This also helps the real deficiency in his singing – Daunno has a charming lilt to his voice, but the demands of the show are beyond his talents as a vocalist.) Daunno is perhaps too insinuating a leading man, with an extremely lanky frame that seems to slid into each scene rather than dominate it. We expect good things from him in the future, and he is suited to the darker reimagining of the show, but somehow he never completely convinces.
A bigger disappointment is Amber Gray as the heroine, Laurey. Gray is a spare and astringent presence, and her Laurey strives to be powerful and independent, and comes off merely as strident and sullen. Gray, fortunately, has an impressive voice and sings her songs effectively.
Several of the performers, however, are everything one could wish for, and more. Ado Annie – often depicted as a coy vixen – here is reimagined as a backwoods slut by actress Allison Strong. Her brazen sensuality while singing I Can’t Say No! leaves nothing to the imagination, and she has a wanton heat that adds considerable sizzle to the proceedings. She is evenly matched by the delightful James Patrick Davis as Will Parker, who makes hay with an exuberant rendition of Kansas City, and plays with energy and panache. Benj Mirman as peddler Ali Hakim (always our favorite character in the show) is a pleasing presence, with an understated handsomeness that contrasts well with the all-American he-men surrounding him. And though not a singing role per se, he has a pleasing baritone and an easy stage presence; we would happily see him again.
Other players, such as Mitch Tebo as Andrew Carnes and Mary Testa as an unusually slatternly Aunt Eller, also appoint themselves successfully.
However, the real revelation of the evening is Patrick Vaill as the villain of the piece, Jud Fry. A brooding, sullen presence filled with quiet menace and a palpable, latent sense of evil, Vaill nearly walks away with the production in a scene played, surprisingly, completely in the dark. When Curley comes to Jud’s room to learn more about him, director Fish blackens the stage, recording the conversation between the two with an infra-red camera and flashing the results on the wall monitor. The effect is unsettling, creepy and other-worldly, and with his listless eyes and slack carriage, Vaill is a spectacular boogeyman. He is an actor who will deliver great things in the future.
However, poor Jud’s death at the end of the play is more execution than self-defense: an out-of-context anti-NRA commercial that completely up-ends the normally happy ending of the show. In addition to the anti-gun message, we also get a battle of the sexes that may delight even today’s feminists.
These days, when we are given the paradoxical dark and gritty Superman, it is perhaps no wonder that Fish serves a light tuneful show as a more real-life dark vision of rural America. The singing of the signature tune is oddly … defiant, and many of the choices may leave people with a history of the show scratching their heads in dismay. But if you are adventurous, and want to see a daring, thoughtful and mostly-successful reimagining of a beloved piece of Americana, then the new Oklahoma! is for you.