by JK Clarke
If you strip away the jaw dropping, “holy cow” moments from the new production of Oklahoma! at St. Ann’s Warehouse (now through November 11), what you’re left with is an utterly delightful, sincere and powerfully contemporary version of the 1943 Rodgers & Hammerstein classic. This Bard Summerscape production, perfectly directed by Daniel Fish, re-inspires the play’s raison d’être: it’s an affectionate glimpse of American pastoral life. But now without the technicolor polish, freshly scrubbed faces and naïveté that has culturally defined the musical via the 1955 film version starring Shirley Jones and Gordon McRae. Fish’s Oklahoma! is a more familiar agrarian America as we know and (mostly) love it now, but one that’s a little grittier and a little more authentic.
In this Oklahoma! the audience is part of the play, and not because of the occasional, incidental cracks in the fourth wall (eye contact is made, actors dance across a stage-side table where folks quickly move personal items out of the way, etc.). Rather, it’s a result of the bright house lights staying on for the majority of the performance, shedding the same light on cast and audience, creating no perceptible illuminated space between actor and spectator. Even cast members not technically in a scene almost continuously remain on stage. Here, at the Box Social venue, we’re all one. What’s more, at intermission, hungry or curious audience members are offered a small cup of chili (delicious!) with a nice piece of cornbread, which was being prepared as the play progressed.
When the audience enters the theater at St. Ann’s it’s almost as if they’re filing into a jury box. The set (Laura Jellinek) is a cross between a high school auditorium and a barn, with blond, unfinished plywood sheets for floors and walls; and seats rising up on either side of a long rectangular floor (like a miniature football field), at one end of which is a recess that holds the seven piece band. Metallic banners are festooned across the stage, on which sits white folding tables, on which sit casseroles of the aforementioned chili.
Shortly after the show opens the barn stands in for Laurey’s farmhouse, where Aunt Eller (terrific Mary Testa) begins tearing open boxes of Jiffy Cornbread, and cracking eggs into the mix. The first two numbers, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” are two of the most sincere versions of those beloved songs you’ll ever hear, and less likely than ever to cause an ear worm. Both songs drip with confidence and hope; both are utterly lacking in the corniness we’ve come to associate with lines like “Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry.” Instead, there really is a “bright, golden haze on the meadow.” Damon Daunno’s sensitive, multi-layered Curly is feeling an almost melancholy happiness, and really does believe things are “goin’ my way.”
But what Curly wants he’s going to have to fight for. Getting the beautiful Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones) to go the Box Social with him (and eventually wed him, presumably) isn’t going to be as simple as he hoped; he’s going to have to fight for her. Having to struggle for what you want, we begin to see, is the country way.
Curly’s rival for Laurey’s love shouldn’t be any competition at all. Everyone seems to love Curly, especially Aunt Eller, who wouldn’t mind playing cougar to the young man. But for some reason, in an echo of a song to come later, Laurey can’t say no to Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill, who perfectly channels the psychopathic creep vibe like a rural Patrick Bateman). He’s asked her to the dance, and though she hasn’t answered she feels accepting Curly’s invitation would be rude. And, quite frankly, she seems a bit afraid—justifiably. Even though it’s Ado Annie who’s “jist a girl who cain’t say no,” to her multiple suitors—in a song that essentially slut-shames the boy-crazy girl (“I Cain’t Say No”)—it’s also Laurey who can’t say no. But in Laurey’s case it’s fear and guilt that’s holding her back. Which is rather the opposite of Ado Annie’s tendency to feel that too much of a good thing can be wonderful.
As it should be in Oklahoma! the acting, singing and dancing are the dominant hallmarks of this production, all of which are mesmerizing. With the help of John Heginbotham’s delightful and often complicated choreography, Ali Stroker nearly steals the show. Stroker uses a wheelchair—and was the first such actor to appear on a Broadway stage in in 2015’s Spring Awakening revival—which adds an extra special dimension to the do-si-do of the charming dances—square and otherwise—at the Box Social. The rest of the cast is solid, up and down the line, featuring terrific singers, dancers and beautifully reserved, genuine acting (and gorgeously costumed by Terese Wadden). The company also handles with aplomb the early 20th century American agrarian dialect that’s as unfamiliar to non-American English speakers as Shakespeare is to us (“Oh, whud ud I do, ‘thout you, you’re sich a crazy!” says Laurey to Aunt Eller who responds, “Shore’s you’re borned!” — run that by an Oxford scholar). But, you’d hardly know this is almost a second language to these actors.
Quite a number of production flourishes move the play from delightful to remarkable, particularly where the production veers into the surreal (e.g. a total blackout scene to stage a microphone-only confrontation between Curly and Jud that feels more like an exercise in an encounter group than a tussle on the ranch). And then there’s the non-sequitur of an interlude. It’s Laurey’s opioid dreams from a draught of laudanum, and it comes in the form of an interpretive dance. A 5,000 word analysis could be written about the social/historical/political symbolism and message of the dance, but suffice it to say that it’s not only transformative in terms of its moment in the play, but it’s gorgeous, transfixing and dripping with meaning. Lead dancer Gabrielle Hamilton’s dance is so stunning and memorable that it will be discussed for years to come.
This is not an Oklahoma! like you’ve seen before, but it is very much the Oklahoma! you’ve always loved. Yes, those two very divergent ideas can exist simultaneously. The proof is at St. Ann’s. And it’s in a production that is simply not to be missed.
Photos: Teddy Wolf (except where otherwise indicated)