Published in Theatre Journal, Vol. 68, no. 1

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OKLAHOMA! Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Daniel Fish. Bard Summerscape, Luma Theater, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. 27 June 2015.

Ted Chapin, the President and Executive Director of the agency that maintains the rights to the Rodgers and Hammerstein estates, repeated the sentiment of many theatre historians in his program note accompanying the production: that Oklahomarepresented a stylistic, musical, and choreographic revolution when it premiered in 1943. But Chapin moves his argument into the present, claiming that modern-day directors should take precisely the same sort of gambles with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s revered canon. If the successes of Daniel Fish’s radically reimagined production are any indication, Chapin’s company may feel empowered to let other directors tinker with these works in the future. By opting for a simple chamber version rather than a lavish staging, Fish and his collaborators allowed the source material to speak to a contemporary audience. Cutting the cast to nine, scaling the orchestrations down for six musicians, and introducing an unconventional and intimate performance space, Fish’s production placed particular emphasis on the tense relationship between the frontier community’s social mores and the urgent complications of teenage sexual awakening.

Set designer Laura Jellinek, adapting John Conklin’s original concept from Fish’s 2007 workshop production of the musical, shrunk the black box into a tiny rectangle of untreated plywood. Audience members entered the space and found the floors and walls paneled with unfnished planks, an instant metaphor for the rough-hewn Oklahoma Territory. Along the outside walls, two concentric rows of wooden chairs and tables built atop sawhorses awaited audience members. Decorated with garish tinsel in outdated disco colors, the space evoked a recreation hall or fraternal lodge from a half-century ago. Strips of white butcher paper served as the only barriers between the tables and strategically placed slow cookers full of chili, which continued to simmer and gently perfumed the theatre throughout the first act. At intermission, audience members feasted on a family-style meal featuring the chili, wedges of cornbread, and plastic cups of instant lemonade, often having to ask their neighbors for help with serving. This communal meal functioned as more than a gimmick, filling the narrative gap between the musical’s two acts and allowing the audience to physically experience the potluck that immediately precedes the second act’s fateful auction.

Because the space was so cramped and the actors often utilized the audience’s tables as playing spaces, lighting designer Scott Zielinski opted to keep the audience fully lit for much of the performance. This produced a profound pleasure for me during the preview performance I attended: watching the rest of the audience tap their toes to Rodgers’s classic tunes and grin at Hammerstein’s one-liners. The book scenes played wonderfully in this cozy setting, and Daniel Kluger’s new bluegrass orchestrations allowed the well-worn score to be heard anew. The twangy strains of banjo, mandolin, and pedal steel guitar introduced a new musical idiom that often dovetailed beautifully with Rodgers’s melodies, proving most successful in soaring ballads like “The Surrey with the Fringe on the Top” and “People Will Say We’re in Love.” When Damon Daunno’s sexually magnetic, cowboy-crooner Curly began the performance by walking onstage with an acoustic guitar, accompanying himself for the opening strains of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” Laurey (Amber Gray), Aunt Eller (Mary Testa), and the audience found themselves instantly smitten. Yet, while the bluegrass arrangements were one of this production’s strongest departures from the source material, they proved less successful in up-tempo group numbers drawn from Rodgers’s background in operetta like “It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage!” and “Many a New Day.” Forced to divide the complex harmonies among just nine voices, Kluger’s arrangement sacrificed much of the choral grandeur in the musical’s title song.

But the production’s strongest deviation came in cutting Agnes de Mille’s original dances, which are often recreated for revivals. With a tiny playing space and no ensemble to populate the dance numbers, John Heginbotham’s choreography became utilitarian and simplistic. The energy of de Mille’s sprawling company hoofing for “Kansas City” was replaced with a few bars of Will Parker (James Patrick Davis) circling the stage alone or with Aunt Eller in tow. Instead of a dozen or more women fusing ballet and modern dance together in “Many a New Day,” Heginbotham’s staging featured the only three other female characters available standing alongside Laurey and suggestively snapping cobs of corn. The production’s least successful scene was an unconventional version of de Mille and Rodgers’s famous “Dream Ballet.” After cutting the Overture and Entre’acte, Fish moved the iconic scene to the start of the second act. The previous acoustic energy of the orchestra was pumped through digital effect filters and became dissonant and discordant. When the cast finally entered the stage toward the end of the number, they stood perfectly still in place, silently and obstinately refusing to dance. The approach placed new emphasis on Rodgers’s score and the reprisals of the first act’s melodies, but failed to develop the individual character trajectories.

Played in the twenty-first century for an audience that was quite literally placed within the action, the sexual coquetry and euphemism of Hammerstein’s scenes often fell away. With the entire cast onstage for most of the production, many of the intimate scenes between the young lovers became frank and explicit points of discussion for the community. Allison Strong abandoned much of the standard naiveté in her interpretation of Ado Annie, grinning and glaring at her beloved Will Parker as she described the sexual advances of her suitors in “I Cain’t Say No!” As she sat on the lap of Ali Hakim (played without the usual accent or shtick by Benj Mirman) and negotiated the erotic details of their honeymoon, her father sat just a few feet away, gritting his teeth and slamming down his can of beer. The production’s final trial scene, where the speedy consummation of Curly’s new marriage is privileged over the legal process, best showcased the contrasting sexual attitudes of the two generations. If Fish’s feel-good distillation of the musical emphasized one pointed critique, it was the older characters’ simultaneous and conflicting desires to regulate and revel in young lust and sex. By placing the audience within the dramatic conflict spatially, the production invited them to join in this exercise of prurient community voyeurism. 

Photo credit: Corey Weaver