There is toe-tapping and foot-stomping in Daniel Fish’s production of Oklahoma! but with the first crash of electric guitar reverb in the show, it quickly becomes apparent this iteration is a distant cousin of the traditional Broadway version. Between the score being re-arranged for six musicians playing string and percussion instruments and the small ensemble of actors oscillating between tableaux stillness, mumblecore slouch, and electric showdowns, this classic musical gets a jolt from these unexpected choices which unleash the musical's remarkably potent emotional core.
Sex and desire have always been an aspect of this show but usually they are delivered in a sugar-coated, family-friendly tone or stark virgin/whore binaries that feel creaky in this day and age. Fish shades in a lot more gray in this production and drags this old-fashioned story into a modern spotlight. And everything has a tinge of sex to it.
Ado Annie (Allison Strong) remains the carefree gal who can't say no but when Laurey slut shames her over this, Fish makes us feels as if Laurey is out-of-touch and Annie is a more contemporary figure. When Will Parker (James Patrick Davis) later delivers his aggressively sexual "Oklahoma hello" to Ado Annie he does so on the tabletop of certain audience members. At this particular matinee someone who did not look like they met the required age cut-off for the show (warnings were that no one under age 12 would be admitted) had her eyes shielded by a parent for this scene taking place right in front of her.
Even when Curly goes to see Judd Fry (Patrick Vaill) in Judd's grimy smokehouse, Fish stages the scene at first in complete darkness. Then we see the two men via night-vision style projections and they are practically lip-to-lip. These characters are locked in intimate battle and Fish makes the space even more claustrophobic, and a tad homoerotic.
Laura Jellinek’s set (based on an original concept by John Conklin) gives life and liveliness to the theater space. It is built out of plywood and resembles a rustic barn. Tinsel bunting is draped across the ceiling and a festive, communal, party atmosphere is embraced. The audience is seated in the round at butcher-paper-topped tables with slow cookers of chili heating up on the tables. When it comes time for the picnic-basket auction the audience has eaten the chili and cornbread which was mixed up by Aunt Eller (Mary Testa) in the opening number.
But as you are sipping your lemonade, you may notice between these moments of exuberant release, Fish pulls back and this community sits in silence and stillness.
Much of this internalization comes from Laurey (Amber Gray) who is stuck at a crossroads in her life--unsure if she should pursue her feelings for the charming cowboy Curly (Damon Daunno). Even when she is meant to contemplate her life choices on her own, Fish does not leave Laurey alone. Often the townsfolk sit on chairs around the edge of the stage and watch. They are present as voyeuristic observers.
As a show that is fixated on the idea of community, a developing nation, and a growing sense of American identity, Fish's choice opens the door to some skepticism over how the community here functions. The meddling of the neighbors, Aunt Eller, and others comes off as less folksy and a bit more controlling. It's not overt but as the musical moves towards its conclusion this lens on the proceedings becomes more and more focused. But more on that later.
Fish injects this production with a sizzling undercurrent of sensuality which is a goal well-served by his cast. Amber Gray and Damon Daunno through their evocative vocal performances and this intimate staging, make a convincing argument that all love stories should be sung with such smoldering desire underneath. Rather than just a static, syrupy, sweet rendition of People Will Say We're In Love, here Fish has Gray drag the microphone away from Daunno as he is singing. There's a real heat to their seduction. Upon the final line of the song, Curly leans in close and whispers it into Laurey's ear.
Fish's staging give great agency to Laurey in this production. Gray's Laurey is not the timid ingenue. She's a troubled presence and even if she can't quite make up her mind about what she wants, she is a woman who knows she has wants. Though Gray reads a little older than Daunno, her Laurey is a worthwhile adversary for the wild, young Curly. Daunno's boyish charms are accentuated by him serenading Laurey often and ardently while playing guitar. He may be the carefree cowhand to be tamed in the text, but here these actors make the characters fully aware of the sacrifices that will be made should they pursue their union. The consequences of those choices always feel present.
Daunno delivers with stoicism Curly's pain when he bets his livelihood--his horse and his saddle--in the auction for Laurey. Yet Daunno could also be the giddy boy somewhat lost in his affection for Laurey when things are finally settled between them.
Though the on-stage sizzle may be dialed up in this Oklahoma, it is the music that will be for some the most radical choice here. The musicians sit in a recessed area in the center of the stage and at times sing, speak, and become our focal point. Ado Annie rocks out with them like an indie rock queen. When the characters flirt and flit, the ensemble of strings and percussion can feel down-home-y. But in other instances the arrangement suggests a creeping darkness beneath the surface of the musical.
For instance, the "dream ballet" is staged in a bilious green light and the musicians take to the strum and twang of their electrical guitars. Laurey is visited by Curly and Judd Fry singing I Can't Say No. The music escalates with a haunting tension and the crashing strings are anything but comforting. No one is dancing.
The Judd Fry storyline (the core of the dark undercurrent in the musical) becomes another place to experiment. Fish makes Fry an almost sympathetic character. Patrick Vaill plays Fry as earnest and awkward. His interactions with Laurey are forthright but whether they are menacing is harder to read. When they are alone, one-on-one, the lighting and staging make the scene painterly and idyllic.
Fish also chooses to stage the final confrontation between Curly and Judd with this same lens of sympathy. Without saying too much, the approach to this event shifts the entire meaning of what follows.
Suddenly the quick transition from death to "let's get the happy couple back on the road to their perfect life" becomes a political interrogation of the original work. The kangaroo court thrown together to adjudicate Curly's actions is highly questionable. Are these the people forming the newest state in the union? What does this mean for America? It forces us to look at corruption, local justice, and exactly what "community" means to these people. Taking care of one's own at the expense of the outsider you have marginalized?
More so, Fish extracts any joy from the traditional jubilant ending. Instead, in all seriousness, Curly stamps his feet to sing Oklahoma with aggression. With each pound of his boot, is that an expression of happiness or of subjugation? Has he just begun to make the world in the image he wants. With every slam of his body's weight on the ground, is he making his mark on this land, shaping his own future at the expense of another?