April 15, 2019
Produced in 1943 (during World War II) to a score by Richard Rogers and libretto
by Oscar Hammerstein, the legendary Oklahoma! team was joined by the equally
formidable choreographer Agnes deMille. Together they fashioned a wildly
successful show that became an equally successful film in 1955. For
many, Oklahoma! is a musical staple about the great American pioneering spirit.
Before its move to Broadway, Daniel Fish’s vision of Oklahoma! appeared at St.
Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, a theater known for producing spine-tingling,
In Fish’s refashioning of Oklahoma! at Circle in the Square, the audience sits
amphitheater style on three sides of the stage. Actors and musicians travel up
and down the long rectangular performance space, entering and exiting from the aisles.
A down-home casualness draws the audience into the lives of folks at the turn of
the 20th century eagerly establishing their lives in a territory on the edge of joining the Union. An outstanding, racially and mixed-ability cast exudes a naturalness
and genuineness that immediately draws everyone into the sweeping story of
young lovers and sinister antagonists.
The switch from an orchestral performance of the much-loved score, to the
simpler folk tune arrangements, produce a very intimate musical experience -- more
aligned with the actual musical sounds of the era. Scattered throughout are
casually organized wooden chairs, tables, crockery, window frames and a rocker
for the boisterous Aunt Eller (Mary Testa). Dressed in western garb including
overalls, gallon hats, chaps and full skirts with petticoats, the cast looks mighty
comfortable in Terese Wadden’s costumes.
One by one, the main characters are introduced: the handsome and goodhearted
Curly (Damon Daunno), his love interest Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones),
Laurey’s girlfriend and powerhouse actor Ado Annie (Ali Stroker), Annie’s witless
lover Will Parker (James Davis), the slippery traveling salesman Ali Hakim (Will
Brill) and menacing Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill).
There’s the usual tug-of-wits between Curly and his hard-headed heart-throb
Laurey, but the real eye-opener hits when the captivating Ado Annie comes
wheeling through the audience, radiating a fierce independence and unabashed
sexuality. Ripping around the stage in a hand-manipulated wheel chair, more
than anyone, Annie personifies the pioneering American spirit.
The close knit, quarrelsome Oklahoma families join in a number of festivities and
hoedowns jauntily choreographed by John Heginbotham. Guys and gals kick up
their boots, do-si- do, fling their gals to and fro so petticoats go high and low, then round-and-round in a promenade. All the dance sequences lighten the air with well deserved frivolity and intimacy, except for the famous “dream sequence.”
Considered one of Agnes deMille’s masterpieces, Fish and Heginbotham
descend into a dance nightmare trading out deMille’s "dream sequence" ballet for one lone performer, Gabrielle Hamilton. Alternately running around and
galloping on an imaginary horse, she flings herself from one end of the
space to the other, slamming against a wall, falling, rolling, vertically splitting her
legs and heaving from the exertion. The choreographically set and improvisatory sections are harsh and at times disorienting. Most disturbing is the ending of Oklahoma! Although DeMille’s ballet scenario is pretty much eliminated, many of the
narrative elements are dropped into the show’s ending.
Despite the adjustments, Oklahoma! is not radically altered. Jud still
terrifies Laurey, Curly touchingly donates all his possessions for Laurey’s picnic
basket, Aunt Eller referees the cowboys and the farmers, and Ado Annie just
can’t stop having the time of her life. Everyone delivers a heartfelt performance
soaked in lighting designer Scott Zielinksi’s bright morning sunlight, and dusk’s fading rays.
And in a homey touch, everyone in the audience is invited to eat some home-cooked vittles
during intermission. Now you can’t beat that!
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis