It’s odd, but true. I still vividly remember certain sounds that wafted up to me in the second balcony of the St. James Theatre on Broadway in 1944 when, as a teenager, I saw the original production of this Rodgers and Hammerstein masterful game-changer. I can remember the excitement of anticipation I felt as Alfred Drake’s clear and vital baritone voice started the show with “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.”
I can still hear Celeste Holm’s unique delivery of lines from ‘I Cain’t Say No” as her un-amplified tinkly soprano voice explained, “When a feller gets flirty and starts to talk purty, whatcha gonna do? — spit in his eye?” Even supporting player Joseph Buloff, as the Persian Peddler Man, is inside my head as he complained, “There’s a baby on your shoulder blowing bubbles on your neck.” So, as the current director Daniel Fish’s revival started, I sat back and let it play out before me, during which all my memories and many moments I’d forgotten came bringing new meaning to the lyrics and new resonance to the newly re-orchestrated score.
Throughout the long first act, I marveled at how a creative director and his gifted actors could make a simple story of two couples finding love more relevant to a modern audience—one that had become adjusted to the probings of analysis; one that dismissed romance as obsolete; one that had become more insistent on truth, even in so-called musical comedies. Wrong term: Rodgers and Hammerstein established the musical play as the standard from “Oklahoma” right on through to the rest of the 20th century and beyond. We’d had glimpses of the form in “Show Boat” (Jerome Kern and Hammerstein’s) and in George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” but they were the exceptions, and until “Oklahoma!” in 1943 most musicals were indeed comedies created as vehicles for stars like Ethel Merman, Bobby Clark, Ray Bolger, Gaxton and Moore, Bert Lahr, and their colleagues. Or they were ensemble shows like “Best Foot Forward” or “Too Many Girls” which featured fresh young talents in stories that paid little attention to reality.
In style of production however, “Oklahoma!” retained some of the old world traditions. Leading men were attractive and blessed with beautiful voices, mostly baritones. Their ladies were always adorable or gorgeous, either belters or sopranos. Second leading ladies were known as soubrettes, usually younger and sprightlier than the first billed. Their romantic partners were often dancers or comics. The book writers rarely told us anything about their backgrounds, possibly because we really didn’t want to know.
If they were talented and entertaining, we were not only satisfied, we often became ecstatic.
But as the millennials have arrived and taken their place as the generation of the day, Mr. Fish and his cast have supplied them with a contemporaneously valid set of characters, which is remarkable, because he hasn’t changed a note of Rodgers’ beautiful score, nor has he changed any of Hammerstein’s poetically loving, wise and witty lyrics. What he’s done is order new orchestrations and arrangements by Daniel Kluger.
Laura Jellinek’s set and Scott Zielinski’s lighting place us firmly in the middle of a prairie town which was surrounded by space. Picnic tables are placed strategically around the playing area, and chili is being prepared for our consumption in the intermission, aided by some mighty fine looking corn bread. The town-folks include us in the audience now and then by actually making contact with those of us seated at some of those picnic tables. We feel included, and we feel welcomed.
Damon Daunno as Curley McLain starts things off by accompanying himself on his guitar as he comes calling on Laurie Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and her Aunt Eller (Mary Testa). Mr. Daunno is young, more attractive than downright handsome; and his performance is original, filled with sexual energy as well as a brashness that may cover some insecurities of his own. Ms. Jones’ Laurie is a young woman who’s had her eye on Curly for some time, but she’s not about to be rushed into any kind of commitment until she’s made up her mind about whether she wants one with Curly’s cowboy who hasn’t much more than himself to bring to a marriage. Aunt Eller as played by Mary Testa is a no-nonsense woman who’s faced life realistically and has been family for Laurie with whom she lives. We like Aunt Eller; everyone does, for she’s trustworthy and hearty and good to have around.
Later we’ll meet Laurie’s friend Ado Annie Carnes, a young woman who has, in this production, not allowed her disability (she’s wheelchair-mobile; and though it’s not explained how that happened, she manipulates that chair with such alacrity she remains a vital participant in the life around her). She has two swains after her; one is the temporarily available traveling salesman Ali Hakim, a promiscuous Persian peddler. The other is her contemporary neighbor Will Parker, to whom she’s unofficially sorta engaged. With Will temporarily out of town in Kansas City she’s been involved with Mr. Hakim. When Will returns, she becomes the focal point of a triangle that is hilarious and totally believable. Ali Stroker, who plays Ado Annie, has made her a lovable lunatic and proves once again that well written characters can be played in more than one way. I’ll always cherish Celeste Holm’s original take on her, but Ms. Stroker has every right to her this season. Will Brill’s version of Ali Hakim is his own, as is James Davis’ performance as Will Parker, and their delivery of “It’s A Scandal” and “All Er Nothin” make them both honorary custodians of their characters.
The first act, which runs over an hour, is a joy from start to finish. John Heginbotham’s choreography is more hoedown than Agnes DeMille (the original choreographer, which placed much more emphasis on ballet) but seems absolutely right. I have minor problems with the second act, which opens with a bizarre solo dance by lead dancer Gabrielle Hamilton. It replaces what in the DeMille original was a ballet called “Laurie Makes Up Her Mind” during which dancers replaced the principals to tell a story in dance of Laurie’s inner conflicts about the two men who are determined to win her love. Ms. Hamilton performs in white shorts covered by a short white jacket. She is barefoot and throws herself about in an alarming manner, indicating great internal struggle. But I found it unclear, astringent, and musically atonal using distorted notes from some of the relevant songs we’d heard in the first act. That includes the beautiful “People Will Say We’re In Love” which Daunna and Jones had sung hauntingly well.
The rest of the second act played well, but the only change in the book I noticed was the method by which Jud Fry met his defeat. In the original, he assaulted Curly and Laurie on their wedding day by attacking Curly with a knife and by accidentally falling on it himself. Mr. Fish has changed that — and I won’t spoil it for you, — but I assume he did that because Parick Vaill’s performance is notably different from the one given originally by Howard DaSilva. He was then played as a complete villain; in those days bad men were bad, and we didn’t question that. In this more realistic version, he is played as a sad and lonely loser, who hates himself more than he hates others, and I completely bought the fate he forced on himself in the current version.
The “incident” at the wedding is resolved when Curly is acquitted by Judge Carnes, who witnessed it all. And it’s followed by a lusty rendition of the title tune, which is as “up” as up can be. I felt just that way myself as I sashayed down the street back into the 21st Century.
Circle in the Square on W 50th St.
Two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission