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New York City Theater

Circle in the Square

Everything’s up to date in the revival of “Oklahoma!,” a radical rendering of the Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein classic. The original has come a long way from its iffy debut at New Haven’s Shubert Theater, where the pioneer musical was titled “Away We Go,” to its present reincarnation and re-imagining as the dark and dangerous show it has always been. If we need reminding of perils, the guns in their racks that line the theater walls do the job.

In its first production, back in 1943, the musical was seen as a sunny and inconceivably tuneful antidote for a nation at war. In its current, still tuneful, incarnation, it reflects a disturbing world where noble causes are no longer fashionable but divisiveness is. To go from territory to state, “the farmer and the cowhand should be friends.” Unity, not separation is the goal.

To those who decry tampering with material, director Daniel Fish is not only faithful to the original script but with no less political underpinning than other R&H hits like ”South Pacific,” “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music.”

Fish has cut down the cast to 12 and the orchestra to seven. The setting is still the frontier before Oklahoma enters the Union. But in the confines of the Circle in the Square Theater, with the audience surrounding the stage, we’re all in this together.

Actors flirt with the audience, shuck corn and join together for some numbers. (The entire cast joins in on “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin,’” first optimistically, then ironically.) At intermission, chili is served to the crowd.

The only downer, and it’s a whopper, is the second act “ballet,” so brilliant in the Agnes DeMille original. Here, instead of a dream, we have a nightmare as a bare-footed Gabrielle Hamilton, wearing a T-shirt labeled “Dream Baby Dream” doesn’t so much dance as go through a gymnastics program. Not only is it extended to the point of boredom, it doesn’t serve the purpose of objectifying Laurey’s restless reverie of having to choose between shy Curly or menacing Jud.

The number is without conflict in a show that thrives on conflict. Curly is cheerful while this Laurey is sullen. Both have to contend with the conniving yet enigmatic Jud.  The naïve Will is paired with the lascivious Ado Annie, a fun-loving girl who “cain’t say no,” especially to the rapscallion peddler, Ali Hakim.

Scott Zielinski’s lighting is almost another character. The bunkhouse scene, where Curly challenges Jud, is given added fear by being played in complete darkness, broken when a video cameraman toggles between the rivals’ faces. During “People Will Say We’re in Love,” the stage lights turn green. For most of the show, houselights are left on. All this manipulates our feelings and feelings there are a’plenty.

Damon Daunno is an appealing, shy Curly, with Rebecca Naomi Jones a dour Laurey. Ali Stroker’s lively Ado Annie is matched with James Davis’ hungry-for-love Will Parker. Adding color are Mary Testa’s wise Aunt Eller and Will Brill’s hilarious Ali Hakim.

But it’s Patrick Vaill’s threatening Jud Fry that backbones the production. Empathetic without being sentimental, frustrated without being neurotic, Vaill concocts a character who’s tired of being lonely and bullied. His ultimate fate, neither inevitable nor desired, knits all together.

The Rodgers / Hammerstein score is a cornucopia of melody and wit, played here by a band that, thanks to Daniel Kluger’s knock-out orchestrations, has a proper countrified sound. This “Oklahoma!” may be dark but it’s not dreary. In fact, it’s a knee-slappin’ good time.

-David A. Rosenberg
April 18, 2019

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