“Country a-changin’, gotta change with it!”
So Curly tells Laurey in Act Two of OKLAHOMA! Director Daniel Fish apparently agreed and changed quite a bit of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first hit.
I purposely waited until the production at St. Ann’s Warehouse had closed to write about it. This way, I could go into revealing detail for those who’d missed it. If you did catch it, let’s see if we agree on its many assets and few liabilities.
First off, Fish allowed designer Laura Jellinek to dramatically alter the stage at St. Ann’s. Think of a football stadium: spectators sat on each side of a “playing field.” In between, the “gridiron” was the stage where a dozen performers did the show. In one “end zone” was a wall of plywood that offered a couple of doors; in the other was the orchestra.
Considering the realism that would be employed — or at least aimed for — the orchestra should have been in a less visible space.
To the left and right of the entryway more than four dozen rifles were mounted on racks. This was a not-so-gentle reminder of the omnipresent guns in the Oklahoma Territory in the early 20th century … and beyond …
Those firearms offered a little foreshadowing, too.
As Curly, Damon Daunno played his own guitar and anachronistically shook his shoulders a la Elvis on “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” Violinist Sarah Goldfeather put some pizzicato into her accompaniment. Aunt Eller later joined Curly in song; that the two hit a high note together was a charming indication that they’d done this before and often.
When Laurey reprised it, she gave it a more soulful rendition. It suggested that African-American Rebecca Naomi Jones hadn’t been non-traditionally cast, but was actually black. That, of course, would have brought up another issue in the South during the early 19th century, but if that’s what was on Fish’s mind, he didn’t make anything more of it. But if Laurey were to be white, she shouldn’t have sung in a distinctively black style.
Fish made Laurey tougher than usual, which paid many dividends. Remember, Laurey does describe herself in a later lyric as “healthy and strong,” which Jones indeed was. Curly wouldn’t easily win this Laurey.
When he sang “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” (Scott Zielinski’s lighting turned green for whatever reason), he expressed the subtext of “I’m poor, but still the man for you.” Still, Laurey looked more injured than usual when she learned there was no surrey. She wanted Curly to be the best man he could be, and at this point, he wasn’t measuring up to the standard she’d set for him.
When James Davis’ Will Parker sang “Kansas City,” he wanted to suggest that he now thought of himself as sophisticated. We knew better.
We enjoyed how he danced on a picnic table, though. When he alighted from it, he danced with many members of the cast, including Ali Stroker, who would soon play his beloved Ado Annie. This undercut the power of their first meeting, so Fish might have done better to save her for later.
“Kansas City” was the first number that Fish allowed to get applause. This isn’t a complaint, but a mere observation; most of the time, Fish didn’t care whether or not we applauded – and who says he should?
When Ado Annie rebutted her beau with an incessant “But, Will,” Fish had Davis snarl out “Stop sayin’ ‘But Will!’” with no-nonsense certainty. In those days, a husband’s word was law – and Will was setting the tone for their upcoming marriage.
Stroker sang with a real country feel (think Reba McEntire). The actress uses a wheelchair so she expertly spun around and then made it buck like a horse when she got to “Something inside of me snaps!” in “I Cain’t Say No.”
There was no attempt to make Ali Hakim Persian or, to be more accurate, a Jew who was trying to pass as a Persian. Michael Nathanson was more of an all-American semi-Harold Hill when peddling his wares. Perhaps Fish felt the ethnic stereotyping usually seen in the role would be offensive to some audience members (which indeed it might have been).
Every now and then, Fish had cast members go into the band’s space and sing at a stand-up microphone. It’s what country stars now routinely do at concerts, but obviously not in Oklahoma during the early 20th century. And we were still in that time frame, for the dialogue established that the Oklahoma Territory would soon be a state (which happened in 1907). So after all the naturalism that Fish offered, these visits to the mic were somewhere between extraneous and silly.
Some changes were valid and welcomed. Ali Hakim sang “It’s a Scandal! It’s a Outrage!” as a solo with Ado Annie on his lap. Now the song represented his interior thoughts.
Gertie Cummings’ hamper was substantially bigger than Laurey’s. The stage picture suggested that Gertie was working hard to impress a man while Laurey was content to be herself. (For whatever reason, both hampers were out of period, much too modern.)
In “People Will Say We’re in Love,” as Laurey was singing that Curly shouldn’t “gaze at me,” he proved her point in the moon-eyed way that he was regarding her. Soon after, Laurey made her hips hoochie-kooch. No: at this point, she was still teasing Curly. He, however, used a falsetto at song’s end of as a way of showing his sensitivity.
“Poor Jud Is Dead” started out in total (yes, total) darkness. Eventually live film close-ups of Curly and Jud’s faces were projected on one wall. Guess that the clouds that had been obscuring the moon had suddenly sauntered on.
Frankly, the unshaven Curly looked far more menacing than Jud. Fish had Patrick Vaill play him as a mewling wimp. When he told Curly “She better not (turn me down after promising me I could take her to the social),” it was a cri de coeur rather than a threat.
Fish had the entire cast join Jud in “Lonely Room.” Perhaps the implication was that everyone in town has always seen through him and knows exactly who he is. But Jud’s namby-pamby characterization didn’t support their views.
Vaill did breathe heavily and slobber as Laurey had said. At one point he even unbuckled his belt which indicated that date-rape was on his mind. And yet, Laurey seemed stronger. She could have taken him with a single punch.
The second act began with everyone singing “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow” when in fact there wasn’t; instead, Fish sprayed half the audience with stage fog.
Then came a misfire: The Dream Ballet when “Laurey Makes up Her Mind.” Here it was danced by one very capable and athletic woman who wore a “Dream Baby Dream” T-shirt. That, however, wasn’t even the production’s greatest anachronism; the guitarist who played in Jimi Hendrix fashion was.
The androgynous-looking woman was eventually joined by others, but the point of the ballet was pretty much lost. At one point Dream Laurey literally beat herself and seemed tortured, which could have passed for her wondering what she should do. But that was it.
Audience members who only want to be entertained by dance and don’t care what the hell it means were probably pleased and impressed.
A bigger misfire was not getting the emotion at the end of the first act that has startled OKLAHOMA! attendees since 1943. Jud, somewhat spruced-up but still less-than-dashing, arrived to take Laurey to the social. Now she realized that all the fun and games in flirting — making Curly jealous and playing one man against the other — had far more serious consequences that she’d ever imagined. Like it or not, the time had come for her to go with the man who had always scared and repulsed her.
Considering the down-to-earth approach that Fish had shown to this point, one expected that he’d make the moment far more menacing.
He entirely dropped it.
Mary Testa was quick with Aunt Eller’s going-going-gones at the auction. She made no bones about rigging it so Jud couldn’t win. (Well, she IS Laurey’s aunt …)
In this production, Jud turned out to be 100% correct when he said that Curly would need his gun. For in Fish’s biggest and most profound change, he made Jud so distraught at losing Laurey that he yearned to die. Laurey did give Jud a goodbye kiss that suggested that she wasn’t the only one in town who couldn’t say no before Curly provided the euthanasia.
This made the ad-hoc “courtroom trial” far more of a farce than it had ever been: Curley could hardly claim self-defense. Black actor Anthony Cason made some strong objections about the law-skirting, but was immediately rebuffed. Was Fish making a commentary that a black man wouldn’t be heeded? You never know in these days of non-traditional casting.
If you think Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding was ruined, imagine Curly and Laurey’s fancy wedding outfits splattered with Jud’s blood. The stain of the murder may remain for some time; Jones’ expression suggested that Laurey might never get over it. However, such a bloodbath did make this an OKLAHOMA! for our times.
(So did the trial where truth wasn’t held in high esteem.)
Laurey had been waiting for Curly’s proposal as much as Dolly had been waiting for her sign for Ephraim. She wanted him to earn her, and she was just as happy as he that he did. That Daunno and Jones didn’t sing the “People Will Say We’re in Love” reprise particularly well may have been intentional – as if to say that the emotion they felt was overwhelming their voices.
Who knows? But one thing was clear. The audience laughed at the jokes in the dialogue and the lyrics, and smiled at the toe-tapping music. They cared in all the right places, too. Fish’s OKLAHOMA! succeeded in many ways and failed in others – but Rodgers and Hammerstein emerged utterly victorious once again.