Tuesday, October 30, 2018


Daniel Fish's absolutely stunning Oklahoma, currently at St. Ann's Warehouse where I wish it could somehow live forever, never loses sight of America's gloried past even as it confronts its darkly sinister present. The production is all the more remarkable considering the fact that it's a revival of the alpha and omega of the musical stage, for crying out loud: Oklahoma! is so frequently positioned as the culmination of all that came before it and the catalyst for all that came afterward that it would seem much easier to just not bother revisiting it at all. The last time the musical had a major revival in New York City was in spring 2002, not even a year after the attacks on the World Trade Center. That revival billed itself as an updated take on an old favorite, but it really wasn't: it clung so desperately to what I suppose was a pre-9/11 embrace of clear-eyed optimism and gosh-darn American gumption that I barely made it through the first act and was overjoyed to split at intermission. 

Scholars of the American stage musical, myself included, are quick to say that the genre reflects its time and place. But then, when it comes to revivals, cultural relevance all too often takes a backseat--or no seat at all--to nostalgia and familiarity. When they do get trotted out, plenty of musicals that are no longer remotely as relevant as they once were end up coming off like someone's beloved antique tableware: dutifully buffed of as much tarnish as possible, but still sort of futzy and vaguely ridiculous nevertheless. 

Sara Krulwich
Not so Daniel Fish's stripped, stark revival, which flays Oklahoma! to expose all the rot that--who knew?--festers beneath its cheery, wide-eyed facade. Staged in the center of a huge performance space, with the audience lining either side of the action, the production is a near-perfect blend of old and new, of joy and foreboding, of what Americans have and what we are rapidly losing. It is an object lesson in how to make a hoary old chestnut roar back to life without changing a single word. And since the lights remain up for most of the performance, spectators can watch one another reacting as the production unfolds: every smile of nostalgic recognition at the start of a beloved musical number, or knowing nod at the recitation of lines evocative of America at its rosiest; every grimace at the cock of a gun or a cheap punchline delivered at a woman's expense.   

Oklahoma! must have felt like a miracle when it hit Broadway in 1943. The first offering by the venerated dream-team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the musical not only became the blueprint for The Broadway Musical as Artistic Triumph, but also enjoyed pitch-perfect timing: after all, it celebrated all that was strong and sure and promising and wonderful about America just as the country was entering the Second World War to rid the globe of evil. Stories of young soldiers weeping openly with patriotic pride at performances before marching gallantly off to confront the Nazis fit perfectly into Oklahoma's breathless hagiography. This revival still gives credit where credit is due, while simultaneously zeroing in on aspects of the American experiment that have dimmed of their bright golden haze and begun to curl around the edges. It's a delicate balance for sure, but in mixing the sticky sweet with the excruciatingly sour, the revival blends up something absolutely dead-on in its relevance in the way only the very rarest of productions can.

It helps that the cast is so stunningly good. Damon Daunno has a gorgeous, clear voice that can trill and swoop, and his Curly is at once appealing and predatory: he's a good-looking, self-assured bro who knows exactly how tall he stands in the pecking order, and who has no problem resorting to cruelty when he doesn't get his way. His "Pore Jud Is Daid" scene with Laurie's comparatively awkward suitor Jud (Patrick Vaill) is done in darkness, save for a huge projection of Jud's face, rapt and practically twitching with longing when Curly suggests he commit suicide in exchange for the love and affection he desperately craves. Jud remains as off-putting and strange in his angry solitude as he's always been, but then, Daunno's Curly is precisely the sort of guy who gets off on devising new ways to make outcasts like Jud sadder, angrier, and more isolated than they already were. 

Laurie (Rebecca Naomi Jones) is a lot better than Jud at playing Curly's game; for the most part, the female characters are painted as smarter and more solid than the men in this production. It doesn't amount to a hill of beans, of course: they're still stuck in a place and time when women are treated about as well as a prized horse if they're lucky. Laurie is attracted to both Jud and Curly, though neither is an ideal match, which helps explain both the seething rage that roils beneath Jones' quiet depiction, and the fact that moments of particularly heated sexual tension are lit in a queasy, medicinal green.

While Laurie is clearly aware of just how small her life is going to turn out to be, Ado Annie (a bubbly Ali Stroker) enjoys playing the field, even though her romantic options are also limited. Annie is being courted by the sweet if dim Will Parker (James Davis) and the slightly brighter, if oilier and far less sincere Ali Hakim (Michael Nathanson). Will wants to buy Annie from her father; Ali wants to sell her on promises that he clearly has no intention of keeping. The bitter, totally-over-it bluntness of Mary Testa's Aunt Eller drives the womens' plight home, as does a silent, memorable scene in which the female characters shuck corncobs, breaking them into a pot with irate efficiency while the men in the cast lean idly against a wall of the theater that just happens to be covered completely with guns.

Layered over the same old dialogue that presumably passed for hilarity in the 1940s--and still does in too many corners of this grand land--is a more knowing acknowledgment of the subjugation of women as fuckable objects, as spent and sexless old crones, as nagging freedom-destroyers, or as livestock. The dream ballet, performed by the powerful Gabrielle Hamilton, neatly demonstrates just how trapped the women depicted in Oklahoma! are. I can't stop thinking about Hamilton, flanked by a group of young women in matching shirts emblazoned with the words DREAM BABY DREAM, racing frantically toward a door that slides shut before they can escape the blasting, electrified medley of songs from the score, while cowboy boots fall around them, striking the floor of the stage with gunshot-like pops. 

To that end, nor can I stop thinking about the flat, resigned, almost mechanical way federal marshal Cord Elam--here depicted by Anthony Cason, who is black--asks that Jud's death be properly investigated, even as the predominantly white cast insists that Curly quickly be pronounced innocent so he can honeymoon with the obviously traumatized Laurie. 

Fish's production sums up the American experience as it was and as it is. America still has its wind whipping 'cross the plain, its statue-like cattle, its beautiful mornings and its sounds of the earth like music. It's still home. It's still worth fighting for. But it's also blood-soaked and cruel, violent and unfair: it's a place where a guy like Curly will always get any girl he wants in the end; where a dimwit like Will Parker will always be content so long as he can buy sex and violence on the cheap in up-to-date places; where a woman like Laurie is free to dream of a new day, even if it never arrives. It's no wonder, then, that the cast's rendition of the title song near the end of the show blends whoops of joy with what sounds suspiciously like growls of rage and howls of pain. 

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