Review: Daniel Fish’s “Oklahoma!” is Terrifying and Terrific

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Officially branded as “not your grandmother’s Oklahoma!” (and unofficially as “sexy Oklahoma!”), experimental director Daniel Fish’s revival lives up to its branding. This reimagining of the 1943 sensation is a complete departure from everything you might have expected. There is no quintessential Rodgers and Hammerstein nostalgia, no soaring American patriotism, no petite blonde soprano falling for a burly man. Instead, there is a complex masterpiece that far surpasses the already-beloved original. Here the musical has a newfound relevance that speaks to our moment more than could ever seem possible.

Fish here shows “Oklahoma!” in an entirely new light, forcing us to reconcile with all the problems of the piece. No longer a simple love story in the soon-to-be state of Oklahoma, in this revival the musical is a tale about sensuality, consent, gun violence, sexism, community policing, sexual assault, ethical quandaries, and the terrors of state formation.

Right from the start you are introduced to this entirely new revival: the Circle in the Square theater has been transformed by set designer Laura Jellinek into a barn-like square dance hall of plywood, streamers, and tables with crock pots of chili. Onstage is the band, made up of folky strings, playing new orchestrations by Daniel Kluger that have radically changed the sound of the musical and made it nothing like the lush Rodgers and Hammerstein score it once was.

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At rise all the actors enter and sit on chair around the stage, where they remain for the majority of the production, watching and standing to start a new scene, which gives the musical a fluid effect where everything bleeds into the next. Costume designer Terese Wadden has the cast decked out in modern attire that has all the flairs of the region: cowboy hats and boots, leather chaps, shirts with fringe, and lots of tight denim.

Which brings me the sex. This production has more sexuality oozing out of it than “Chicago” and “Cabaret” combined. “Oklahoma!” is usually an innocent story of a girl picking a date to a dance and her flirtatious friend picking between two suitors, but here it has become a masterclass in the performance of sexual tension. These characters are certainly a horny group of people, and it has added quite a bit of interest and enjoyment to the piece, but has also raised the stakes in important ways.

Rebecca Naomi Jones is our Laurey, an unconventional but inspired casting choice — she is gritty and wistful with deep desires that she is still working out. Jones is giving one of the best performances of the season, completely reinterpreting a canonical role into something nuanced and psychological, as opposed to the standard Laurey who is mostly just a beautiful pawn.

The main man in her life is the cowboy Curly, played by Damon Duanno, who is the sexiest thing on Broadway (not a standard superlative for a critic to give out, but I stand by it). He plays guitar, has a slow strut, and a smooth voice that jumps between falsetto notes and twangy riffs with unfathomable ease. On the opposition is Patrick Vaill as the farmhand Jud, who here has become an intense incel who makes both Laurey and the audience deeply uncomfortable. Vaill has added an intensity to this role never before seen and even manages to make the most out of Jud’s silences by sitting calmly on the sidelines, never taking his eyes of off Laurey.

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Ali Stroker plays Ado Annie, and clearly has fun with the hyper-sexual, down-for-anything gal. Casting Stoker, who uses a wheelchair, in this role was another powerful choice because her groundbreaking performance explores the intersections of disability and sexuality in ways that are unprecedented on Broadway. Stroker’s “I Cain’t Say No” is award-worthy in itself, but the rest of her performance is equally extraordinary. Praise must also been given here for the choreography and blocking, which beautifully and seamlessly integrate Stroker into the action; at no point is her wheelchair ever a considered an obstacle for the production, which is important and much-needed progress for Broadway.

Her suitors include James Davis as the clueless but loveable Will Parker and Will Brill as the slimy Ali Hakim. Presiding over everything and everyone is Mary Testa as the indomitable yet sassy Aunt Eller; Testa is giving one of her best performances here, embodying her character with such confidence and passion it is hard to imagine anyone else ever playing that role.

As if new orchestrations, modern design, and unexpected casting choices were not enough, this ingenious production also integrates live video feeds and has deconstructed the dream ballet. This new take on the classic sequence (which, in a smart move, has been moved from the end of Act I to the top of Act II) by choreographer John Heginbotham features a single black dancer, Gabrielle Williams, in a sequenced t-shirt dress that reads “DREAM BABY DREAM.” An allegorical dream ballet it is no more; here it is a modern dance solo piece — set to scratchy electric guitar, filled with haze, videotaped and livestreamed on a wall — a movement monologue of Laurey’s psycho-sexual conflict.

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Daniel Fish has dramatically changed just about everything, but has somehow still been faithful to the text. The same songs we all love all there, and there are even new ways to love them. “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” on just a guitar is so touching. “Surrey with the Fringe on the Top” as a sex song is superb. “Many a New Day” staged with corn shucking is comedy gold. Laurey’s “Out of My Dreams,” now a capella, is haunting, as are the terrifying “Poor Jud is Dead” and “In a Lonely Room” — which are both performed in near-darkness but shown in close-up live videos (the lighting by Scott Zielinksi oscillates from bright lights, to moody greens, to moments pitch darkness).

Perhaps the best is the title song, usually a feel-good closing number about patriotism, but here transformed into a commentary on the violence of state formation. You will leave the theater unable to hear these songs in the same way, forever haunted by Rebecca Naomi Jones’s face full of trauma as she sings the should-be happy finale. After this revival, it is impossible to think about “Oklahoma!” in the light-hearted way we are used to.

Put plainly, this “Oklahoma!” is a masterpiece in every element: direction, design, choreography, and acting; it has set the new gold standard on how to do a revival, on all that is possible even when working with established pieces. It is in every way perfect, absolutely one of the best productions in the history of musical theater, forever changing how we think about the art form and all it can do. Oh what a beautiful morning for Broadway indeed.

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Written by

Theater Critic and Queer Blogger. Vassar College alum, currently working toward a PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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