Performing Arts: Theater
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, avant-garde productions.

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

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