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Music and lyrics by Rodgers & Hammerstein; directed by Daniel Fish
Opened April 7, 2019
Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno in Oklahoma! (photo: Little Fang Photo)
That exclamation point looms large in the title of Oklahoma!, as if the creators of this misbegotten revival are protesting too much: “Trust us—we love this classic musical as much as everyone else does!” But what’s onstage suggests otherwise, as director Daniel Fish’s gimcrack deconstruction substitutes loads of gimmickry for originality.
For starters, the house lights stay on for much of the performance, except twice when the stage goes completely black and we only hear dialogue spoken through hand-held mikes for maximum aural effect. But the dramatic impact is minimal, because the performers’ droning voices undercut Fish’s intent by making the scenes affectless. Similarly, an important moment is played out in front of cameras recording the actors in close-up, who are projected onto a wall, but the lack of sufficiently varied emoting has an unfortunate effect on the promised edginess.
The down-home vibe starts with picnic tables and folding chairs arrayed around the stage, with audience members seated in some of those chairs. (Crockpots labeled “HOT” sit on the tables, and chili and cornbread are served to audience members at intermission.) But the racks of guns so ostentatiously displayed on the theater’s walls only underscore the obvious point that the wide-open prairies—an example of which is seen in a wall projection—are also dangerous. The director also substitutes a gun for a knife in his botching of the show’s tragic finale when hero Curly’s rival Jud ends up dead.
There are good moments by Ali Stroker in a boisterous, if at times shrill, portrayal of man-chaser Ado Annie, while Will Brill wrings a few laughs out of traveling salesman Ali Hakim. But Mary Testa can’t help but camp it up as a caricature of Aunt Eller, Rebecca Naomi Jones is an unusually sullen heroine Laurey, and Damon Daunno is a pretty charmless Curly whose facility with a guitar is his best attribute. Despite the #sexyoklahoma hashtag on social media, there’s little spark between the pair; that they get together at all is more because they have to than they make a plausible case for it.
A seven-member band of mandolin, fiddle, cello, accordion, guitars, double bass, and drums plays the classic songs in sometimes refreshingly simple arrangements. But for the most part, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s timeless tunes survive mainly on the audience’s goodwill. Finally, the Dream Ballet—made indelible by Agnes DeMille and here danced with frenzied assurance by Gabrielle Hamilton in John Heginbotham’s muddy new choreography—says less about what Oklahoma! means to us now than it appears to, something which goes for the entire production.
Circle in the Square Theater, 1633 Broadway, New York, NY
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