‘Oklahoma!’ Cool Convolution, a Review
Rodgers and Hammerstein II’s Oklahoma has come to New York City again. This slimmed down (cast) production directed by Daniel Fish initially opened at St Anne’s Warehouse with accompanying servings of chili and cornbread during the intermission. It gained steam to open at Circle in the Square with a multi-talented, vibrant cast, some of whom shine with resplendence. These include the principals: the transcendent, mesmerizing Damon Daunno as Curly, Rebecca Naomi Jones as Laurey, with salient assists by Mary Testa (Aunt Eller) the adorable Ali Stroker (Ado Annie) the sensitive, menacing Patrick Vaill (Jud Fry) the humorously clueless James Davis (Will Parker) and the funny, always on-point Will Brill (Ali Hakim).
Green Grow the Lilacs, (1930) by Lynn Riggs is the play source for the original 1943 version of Rodgers & Hammerstein II’s Oklahoma! Riggs’ (a mixed-race white and Native American-Cherokee) text provides the lyrical, wistful opening that Rogers and Hammerstein II used as inspiration for the lyrics to the iconic song, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” Cowboy Curly McClain opens the “innovative-for-its-time” musical with this serenade which is an advertisement to win over Aunt Eller and Laurey Williams who he wants to ask to the evening box social.
The corn, cattle, sky, “give off a golden emanation that is partly true and partly a trick of the imagination, focusing to keep alive, a loveliness that may pass away,” Rogers and Hammerstein II’s original script states in the stage directions lifted from Riggs. Inherent in Curly’s hopefulness that “everything will go his way,” regarding Laurey Williams, is the possibility that it won’t.
In fact the moment he ends the song, his interchange with Laurey sparks reality. Things are upended where she is concerned and indeed, the loveliness that he enjoyed for a moment has passed. Already, the themes have been presented: uncertainty, impermanence and imperfections caused by tricks of the imagination. Foreshadowed? Continual struggle ahead for Curly’s and Laurey’s relationship and for Oklahoma which is about to become the 46th state.
These themes of impermanence and imperfection coupled with the struggle for survival and the mitigating force of love which may or may not last or help, are important ones. This is especially so for the main characters Curly and Laurey who strive, argue and sacrifice for each other. Though by the play’s conclusion they fulfill their love in marriage which they celebrate with Oklahoma’s statehood, harbingers of change forebode on the horizon. Curly will become a farmer which he knows little about and in twenty-three years his community will be facing drought, deprivation, dust bowl storms and bankruptcy as the “land that is grand” fails them because of their own inability to properly husband it.
Some of this nightmare future in a place that will not fulfill its beautiful mornings is incipient in the plot development of Green Grow the Lilacs and Rodgers and Hammerstein II’s musical. The dark days ahead are certainly revealed by the end of Fish’s Oklahoma! which is thought-provoking, intriguing but also convoluted.
Fish does not change the script, except for the physical fight scene between Jud and Curly. Curly doesn’t fall on his knife; there is a pistol. But the use of design elements lighting/darkness (Scott Zielinski) staging (Fish) scenic design (Laura Jellinek) costume design (Terese Wadden) special effects (Jeremy Chernick) projection design (Joshua Thorson) and sound design (Drew Levy) morph the basic immutable tenets of Oklahoma! to reflect Fish’s circulatory vision. I found this at times confusing and at cross-purposes with characterizations and themes.
In this re-imagined Oklahoma! these are largely re-directed, sifted and filtered revealing the underpinnings of a tenuous social culture which we are encouraged to become a part of. Indeed, the lights are on with the exception of a lovely, sensual and intimate scene between Laurey and Curly and a few other scenes where the design hues change or there is total darkness.
However, despite the lighting touch of inclusiveness, Fish’s social dynamic isn’t completely realized. For example there is no clear referent to Native Americans (30 tribes inhabited the territories by the time of the play) in the community that the designers create of family-style tables sporting chili-filled crock pots that surround the playing area. There is not one eagle feather, moccasin or soft, beaded belt, headband or any obvious identifying cultural accoutrements. In this alternating stylized/realistic version of Oklahoma! this appears to be an oversight along with the reality that also appears to be diminished: laws did not protect women who were men’s chattel once married. (And the EPA amendment has still not been passed!)
In his emphasis of the conflict that grows to a great malevolence between Curly (Damon Daunno) and Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) Fish uses design elements (darkness, sound effects, projections) and particular staging. The result impacts and twists the characterizations in the service of presenting a culture and community rather than individuals. This diminishes the inner conflicts of the characters and hinders the elucidation of themes that could lift the audience’s understanding of immutable principles of good and evil. In this version goodness is sometimes hard to come by.
Specifically, in the smokehouse scene, Fish douses the lights and then uses close up projections of the faces of Duanno and Vaill to create tension and menace. Damon Daunno as Curly and Patrick Vaill’s Jud speak in miked whispers; the effect reveals surreptitious treachery on the part of both characters. The song “Poor Jud is Dead” has a completely different tenor. It appears that Curly is as wicked intentioned, as Jud, perhaps even more so as he encourages Jud to think suicide might yield the love and companionship he seeks, an abject lie for an outsider and miscreant like Jud. Any potential humor in this scene is removed. Curly who should be the bigger person becomes the weaker in his jealousy of a man he criticizes after Jud threatens him.
In this version the scene is a disconnect. It throws down the brokenness of Jud and Curly which ends in their ominous shooting in the dark which Aunt Eller investigates and breaks up as the lights come on. The way Fish renders it, the scene makes us reflect that perhaps Curly is just better at hiding his rapaciousness toward Laurie with more enhanced social graces. His jealously unsettles him that Laurie selects Jud to be with; rather than to confront this, his childish pride takes over.
Because of the overall tone of the scene, the congenial, affable musician and expert singer and guitar player Curly who formerly delighted us, seems an incongruity in his behavior toward Jud. Granted, the scene is a difficult one for tone and tenor to strike a balance with humor. However, when the scene reveals characterizations tweaked without humor, the effect is disturbing. Curly is made unlikable and Jud becomes pitiful and wormy, in addition to being unlikable. All these machinations are over a woman? Do they even see Laurie’s identity? Or is Laurie an objectified symbol of conquest their male egos compete over? Considering Jud’s position in the community (which he himself has effected) there is no competition; why is Curly so upended?
Laurie’s characterization in this version is made shallow. Eliminated is the dream dance sequence where Laurie chooses to sacrifice herself to be with Jud in order to save Curly’s life. The love element is missing and is replaced with an incongruous solo dance (albeit Gabrielle Hamilton is an incredible, lovely talent). The thrust of why Laurie should “lay low” in her feelings for Curly are suggested in “People Will Say We’re in Love.” She must be careful around Jud; she must prevent gossip that would get back to Jud, yet suggest her true feelings for Curly to him. We find this out as she confesses how Jud is stalking her and she hears sounds of him under her window. It is not only because she is undecided about Curly, but it is also because she fears Jud and senses he will not tolerate a relationship between her and Curly. This is muddled in Fish’s version of Oklahoma!
Without the dream dance sequence with Curly, Jud, Laurie and their dream counterparts to illuminate Laurie’s inner struggle and sacrifice, all of the subsequent plot development, foreshadowing of danger and tensions between Laurie, Jud and Curly fall short of the bulls-eye. The coherence and through line become disjointed. I found the solo dance confusing and unrelated to Laurie’s conflict with Jud who haunts her dreams.
The tensions in the character of Laurie, the strain and indecision about Curly made little sense to me without the interpretation of her dream to clarify. It seemed she was being a petulant tease to frustrate and torment Curly who is adorable and cares for her. Why shouldn’t she go with him? That she is sacrificing herself to protect him from Jud is a powerful justification why she doesn’t. It should not be undercut. Meanwhile, the laws don’t protect Laurie as a woman or discourage Jud’s potential stalking behavior. She thinks she can negotiate the situation and keep Jud “at bay” by going with him. She must be her own strong woman and handle things her way, keep Jud around as useful to Aunt Eller, and somehow discourage Jud. Her tenuous position and personal strength are de-emphasized in this version.
When her decision to manipulate Jud and save Curly backfires, Jud seeks her out though she attempts to avoid him. Being near her encourages Jud to enact what he has most probably imagined all along, sexual intimacy. However, Fish’s version complicates. To add to the incongruity, the director chooses to place Laurie and Jud in darkness. Jud’s attempts at intimacy are not visible. We hear sounds between Jud and Laurie but they do not sound like a struggle and Laurie never screams “No,” or “Stop.” Is she returning his kisses out of her own “hot” desires for intimacy? We can’t tell.
Meanwhile, the maladjustment and menace in Jud is apparent from the outset and underscored throughout. The pictures of nude women he has up in the smokehouse reveal a warped sensibility toward women and unfilled expectations. That he doesn’t know the difference between love or sex is manifest in his obsession for Laurie. That he might force himself on her is clearly foreshadowed in her fear and his threats against Curly being with Laurie. Why it is called into question with a “lights-out” scene between Laurie and Jud? This is not conducive to clarifying their characterizations.
Not being able to “see” what happens raises questions. Is Laurie enticed by Jud or is he misreading her? Is this a #metoo moment (an anachronism) in a time when men did what they pleased with women and rarely answered for it unless they were a different race? In the original script and other versions, it is a definite #metoo moment, that perhaps even Justice Brett Kavanaugh might acknowledge. (Well, maybe not.) The power and profound meaning of this is lost in this version. The justification for Laurie having the courage to throw Jud off the property is obviated as is her evolution as a character who has seen the light. Sadly, her insults of Jud seem harsh, if he has not grossly pushed himself on her.
Overall, the scene between them should be to the purpose that “he has gone too far,” and has misinterpreted her kindnesses to him as interest. Other Oklahoma! versions portray Laure’s characterization with coherence and logic. The attempted molestation empowers Laurie to kick him off the property. She draws the line; she will sacrifice herself no longer to protect Curly from Jud’s wickedness. She is no longer afraid which is a big step for her. In 1907 the law will not protect her, she will ask Curly to. It is a risk she takes. Does she have another choice?
It is an important moment and it has been re-characterized, supplanting it with the concept that Jud can’t catch a break and everyone in the community isolates and rejects him unfairly. That Jud creates the situation for himself is buried in this version. That he is the cause of his own problems, a truth he refuses to acknowledge or attempt to correct, is obscured. Jud is his own victim, the point of the humor in the song Curly initiates about him. His whines and resentments are weaknesses as is his impulse for revenge. (Unfortunately, upon closer inspection in modern day parlance he might be a Trump supporting sexual pervert, Incel or a Uni-bomber type in the making. UH OH. Have I gone too far?)
Jud cannot get up and over his jealousy of Curly and obsession with Laurie. Curly doesn’t let his jealousy overtake him nor is he obsessed with Laurie; he loves her. There is a difference. Fish’s version muddies the contrasts between the two men. Curly understands himself and Jud. Jud lacks the will to understand that he is on the road to suicide or murder and doesn’t appear to want to select another path.
But rather than to reach out for help and crawl out of his hole to stop festering (Curly’s description of his behavior) he feeds his resentments and his victimization and remains apart, except when he can purchase “The Little Wonder” to harm Curly and when he goes to the social event to be with Laurie. He ignores his own faults and blames an unloving, heartless community which apparently has been a routine of his in his past. The fact that Fish’s casting of Jud does not reflect a member of another ethnic or racial group apart from this generally friendly community makes this all the more puzzling. We can only conclude he brings about his own demise, a tragedy of the human condition.
Fish slices away at the substance of the two protagonist’s inner conflicts that make them endearing and readily identifiable to us. He modifies Jud’s characterization which confuses, and de limits his character, draining him from being the self-harming tragic figure he is. Thankfully, the humor and relationships between Ado Annie (Ali Stroker) and her lovers Ali (Will Brill) and Will Parker (James Davis) brighten and thrill, all because of the excellent actors’ exuberance. They provide the fun, frolic and wise counterparts to Laurie’s and Curly’s sturm und drang. Directors impose their visions on productions and that is fine. But it should be effected with coherence, logic, clarity and balance. To my feeble mind, this version didn’t satisfactorily land.
This is especially so at the conclusion of Fish’s Oklahoma!. SPOILER ALERT! (Do not read this section; go to the last paragraph) The climax occurs not in Jud falling on his knife, but in Curly shooting him with a gun Jud gives him. (I couldn’t see this with Jud’s back to me…problematic staging.) Jud’s blood splatters Curly’s and Laurie’s white wedding outfits. This is the gruesome wedding present Jud bestows on them effected by Curly. The audience shock is palpable. That is the point, albeit gratuitous since Curly has Laurie and he should not be jealous or feel malevolently toward Jud. Thus, this intentional shooting of Jud appears strange; but because of the staging, I couldn’t see the death scene action, just the blood splattering.
The trial afterward becomes unjust justice of folks not wanting federal law (though they are now a state). Indeed, the entire community of cowpokes, farmers and their gals that many of the audience have broken cornbread with are complicit in vindicating Curly of Jud’s questionable death. Of course Jud is free of Curly and Laurie, but for the rest of their lives, remembrances of their wedding day are tainted by his blood.
The point is well taken. Regardless, the vital fact is that now Curly and especially Laurie are free of Jud who threatened their lives and personal sanctity. That the town forgives him and gives Curly a second chance is their justice. Indeed, only the audience was around to “see” the dark clouds in the scene between Curly and Jud. However, at the conclusion when Curly sings “everything’s going my way,” for Oklahomans, and audience members who know the state’s history in the 20th century, this is a supreme irony.
Fish, the cast and the creatives are to be lauded for taking the risks they did to reformulate Oklahoma! Kudos especially goes to the Orchestra: Nathan Koci, Joe Brent, Brett Parnell, Hilary Hawke, Sarah Goldfeather, Leah Coloff, Eleonore Oppenheim, John Miller.
All involved did a superb job in effecting Fish’s vision. That the incongruities and convolutions in this version were startling to me is of little consequence.
The original version and subsequent versions retain the depth and continuity of characterization, though the musical may be flawed if the directors do not accommodate for how the roles of Native Americans were seminal in the evolution of Oklahoma to statehood. But people will continue to see Oklahoma! because of its place in the historical musical canon. This version should be seen because of Fish’s conceptualizations and the creative designers’ and ensemble’s live performance spectacle which audience members will, at the last, appreciate.
Oklahoma! runs for two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission at Circle in the Square (1633 Broadway…50th Street). For tickets go to the website by CLICKING HERE.