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A CurtainUp Review
Background Notes on Oklahoma!
Oh, what a beautiful Mornin' Oh, what a beautiful day.
I've got a beautiful feelin'
Everything's goin' my way.

—Curly McLain, But even when the romance goes his way his wedding day is a bloody rather than a beautiful day.
Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno(Photo by Little Fang)
The theater has welcomed an interesting style of musicals (currently illustrated by the success of Dear Evan Henson), but the ear hugging melodies and the gorgeous dances of a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical continue to demand a chance to live again. .

But even Oklahoma! which initiated that golden era of musicals at the birth of the book musical in which the songs and dances were story driven and everything forged into a unified whole, nowadays demands a fresh approach. This show with its sun-drenched, corn-fed optimism especially so.

Actually, besides launching the integrated book musical, it also broke new ground with the book's always present dark undercurrents. And it's ratcheting up that darkness that clearly offered the best road map to that fresh approach to directors of revivals.

British director Trevor Nunn's 2002 revival (review link), did just that by intensifying the psychological aspects of Jud Fry's menacing presence. But both his Oklahoma! and Jack O'Brien's more recent revival of Carousel (review) were essentially more a case of minimizing and airbrushing the dated elements.

It took a member of ever more prominent and lauded school of auteur directing — immersive staging, contemporary settings, innovative casting, use of video — to give us a so drastically re-envisioned Oklahoma! that it almost feels more like a new show than a revival.

Despite a top to bottom overhaul, Mr. Fish has not rewritten the text or abandoned the tunes that have always been the the show's strongest suite. Since the performers and creative team on board are so good and in tune with Fish's concept, that even purists are likely to end up leaning as much towards vive la difference than muttering about how they don't make them like that any more.

Unsurprisingly, the most obvious and significant interpretive change reflects the times we live more than the celebration of an expanding America — with the farmers and gun-toting cowboys who lived in the territory on the cusp of Oklahoma statehood shown to be as suspicious of and hostile to outsiders as the many gun loving supporters of our present administration.

That outsider is of course Jud Fry, which makes him more victim than out and out villain. It also makes Curly, Laurie and even Aunt Eller less representative of our spirited but morally upright forbears. That less morally perfect dramatis personae notwithstanding, this extreme revisical retains many of the original's pleasures. And somehow the rousing titular anthem still manages to evoke the original's celebrative spirit.

The most likely to please everyone change is in the aaniel Kluger has orchestrated the beloved score with a bluegrass sound. it's performed by a terrific 7-piece ensemble in an on stage pit carved into Laura Jellinek's woodsy set.

Jellinek's stage craft is also a winner, very much in keeping with the director's vision. She has transformed the entire Circle in the Square theater into an environment that immerses the audience in the lives of the townspeople before, during and after the town's box social. The audience sits around three sides of the long runway style stage that features long tables with pots of chill. To heighten the immersive feel, some audience members actually sit on stage, in back of those tables.

As for the cast, like the orchestra, it's smaller (11 speaking characters) but they too are ideally cast to fit the look and feel of this environment. Dammon Daunno is a quite different Curly McLain than more conventional romantic leads. But this scrappy guitar playing, fleet footed tenor has plenty of sex appeal to win the affections of the always excellent Rebecca Naomi Jones's Laurie Williams. Patrick Vaill is also terrific as the now less menacing but still complicated and creepy Jud Fry.

As Mr. Fish's fingerprints are most evident on Jud's character, they are even more in evidence in the "Poor Jud" number in which Curly suggest that his rival should hang himself and mockingly eulogizes him when he does. This now plays out as a black and white video, and is actually quite effective.

The leading lovers also have their comic counterparts — Ado Annie, Ali Akim and Will Parker (Ali Stroker, who literally dances in her wheelchair, Will Brll and and James Davis). Mallory Portnoy, uses an amusing hysterical giggle to make the small and not absolutely needed role of Gertie, who would be happy to take Laurie's place in Curly's affection. And, of course not to be overlooked is musical theater veteran Testa as the town's butter spinning, fountain of wisdom.

Costume, lighting and sound designers Terese Wadden, Scott Zelinski and Drew Levy round out the excellent stage craft. Except for a few scenes, Zelinski wisely keeps the lights up most of the time to support the idea of making the audience feel part of what's happening on stage.

Gabrielle Hamilton dances the Oklahoma! dream ballet. (Little Fang Photo)
Given that the stage is filled with those tables and the ensemble's almost constant presence on stage there's little room for a lot of elaborate. However, there is one nifty number in which Curly deftly taps is way across those tables. So what about Agnes De Mille's gorgeous dream ballet, and Susan Stroman's equally stunning version in 2002? The busy stage is cleared to make room for choreographer John Heginbotham's own balletic take on Laurie's dream turned nightmare. The shift from blue grass to a heavy metal sound certainly fits Gabrielle Hamilton propulsive dancing. While it's riveting to watch, I found it the one new fangled element that I couldn't quite buy into.

Whether you're mostly on board with this production or not, it's thrilling to see that the theater still has enough people who are not afraid to invest their energies in more risky than sure-fire hit enterprises. So even if you'd rather see oklahoma! back on Broadway in its cornier but sunnier and more traditional format, don't miss this new-fangled version. If you do, you'll discover that those pots on the tables aren't just props but are really filled with delicious chili of which the audience is invited to partake during the intermission. What's more, unlike the overpriced drinks and snacks offered to audiences at other theaters, it's free!
| Background Notes On Oklahoma!
  • Rodgers and Hammerstein based the musical on Lynn Riggs' Green Grow the Lilacs. Lorenz Hart, Hammerstein's original partner disqualified himself from the job feeling that he could not write lyrics for an outdoor play "set on a radiant summer morning several years ago."
  • The major initial technical problem was that the script did not call for the usual opening chorus which led to having the opening number first heard offstage, as it was ever after.
  • Backers did not rush forward to invest in the show originally known as Away We Go! A New Haven tryout brought a much quoted estimate of its future (variously attributed but apparently from gossip columnist Walter Winchell's right-hand woman): "No legs, no jokes, no chance!" According to Philip Langner, whose parents founded the Theater Guild which he later headed, another title once considered was Down on the Strip. Langner also said that it was his grandparents' meeting on an Oklahoma stagecoach that had a lot to do with the final title.
  • The show opened on Broadway on March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theater and ran for 2,212 performances, the longest running musical of its time. There was a tremendous rush for tickets. The then mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, called regularly for tickets for distinguished New York visitors. Eleanor Roosevelt brought all sorts of dignitaries. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor sat in the first-row balcony on repeated Saturday matinees. It was also a send-off event for many ordinary soldiers on their way overseas.
  • Oklahoma! marked the beginning of a long and successful collaboration that included Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific and The Sound of Music. During its first ten years it made a profit of five million dollars on an $83,000 investment
  • The initial cast featured Alfred Drake as Curly, Joan Roberts as Laurey, Howard Da Silva as Jud, Betty Garde as Aunt Eller and Celeste Holm as Ado Annie. (In the oral history It Happened On Broadway, Holm is quoted as saying "It's a terrible thing to say, but I've never ever seen anyone else do Ado Annie as well as me " The first production was directed by Rouben Mamoulian and choreographed by Agnes De Mille.
  • Oklahoma! seeded a decade long U.S. Tour, a run in London's West. Thousands upon thousabds of productions in more than a dozen languages followed.
  • The 1955 film version starring Shirley Jones, Gordon MacRae and Rod Steiger is still a video best renter and seller.
  • Honors earned include a special Pulitzer Prize, two Academy Awards, an honorary Grammy and a special Tony Award. In 1993 it became the first musical commemorated by a U.S. postage stamp.

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Book by Oscar Hammerstein II
Music by Richard Rodgers Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the play 'Green Grow the Lilacs' by Lynn Riggs
Directed by Daniel Fish
Choreographed by John Heginbotham

Cast (in alphabetical order): Will Brill as Ali Hakim, Anthony Cason as Cord Elam, Damon Daunno as Curly McLain, James Davis as Will Parker, Gabrielle Hamilton as Dream Ballet Dancer, Rebecca Naomi Jones as Laurey Williams, Will Mann as Mike, Mallory Portnoy as Gertie Cummings, Ali Stroker as Ado Annie, Mitch Tebo as Andrew Carnes, Mary Testa as Aunt Eller and Patrick Vaill as Jud Fry.

Joshua Thorson (Projection Design). Scenic Design: Laura Jellinek
Costume Design:Terese Wadden
Lighting Design:Scott Zielinski
Sound Design: Drew Levy
Projection Design: Joshua Thorson
Orchestrations, Arrangements & Music Supervision: Daniel Kluger
Choreography: John Heginbotham
Music Direction: Nathan Koci
Special Effects: Jeremy Chernick
Production Stage Manager: James D. Latus
Stage Manager: Jason Kaiser
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with 1 intermission
Circle in the Square Theater 1633 Broadway
From 3/19/19; opening 4/07/19; closing 9/01/19.

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