Some theatrical ideas are so ambitious it almost doesn’t matter whether they succeed or fail – the fun is in seeing them play out. In his audacious, stripped-down staging of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, which opened Sunday at St Ann’s Warehouse, director Daniel Fish exposes the repression, lust, and violence that always lay beneath the surface of this seminal musical.
The story of frontier jealousy unfolds in what looks to be a VFW hall in the midst of a hoedown. Laura Jellinek’s gorgeous scenic design is a welcoming wood cabin of a room, in which audience members sit in folding chairs and are offered chili and cornbread at intermission. Daniel Kluger’s lovely orchestrations reset what’s perhaps the most iconic score in musical theater as folk songs that have been yodeled into our collective unconscious. The rousing seven-piece band brings it across beautifully.
Fish, who originated this version at Bard College in 2015, turns this pleasing backdrop into a playing field for dark dreams and dangerous impulses. He fiddles with the ending (turning it into a violent tableau, which doesn’t entirely work) and, earlier, with the number “Pore Jud is Daid” (a frighteningly intimate psychological mind game, replete with video, which absolutely works).
The showdown between cowboy Curly (Damon Daunno of New York Theatre Workshop’s Hadestown) and ranch hand Jud (Patrick Vaill) is broadened and shaded. The finale, a reprise of the title number, is no longer a paean to American can-doism but a primal scream. Fish excises the joy from one of the most joyful conclusions in the canon. While not entirely satisfying, it’s a neat trick.
The cast is a gift. Ali Stroker was the first wheelchair-bound actress in a Broadway musical when she made her debut in 2015’s Spring Awakening revival. Here she plays Ado Annie with grace and charisma, and blasts St. Ann’s into lower Earth orbit with her “I Cain’t Say No.” The other members of her love triangle, James Davis’s Will Parker and Michael Nathanson’s Ali Hakim, are side-splittingly funny and delightful. Rebecca Naomi Jones is a powerful and expressive Laurey.
Daunno plays the guitar like it’s an extension of his arm and has a sweet voice, but Fish’s decision to mic his actors only selectively impedes the narrative. The director ultimately gets mired in his own experiment, trying to keep too many conceptual balls in the air. Where this production really achieves liftoff, as in Davis’s “Kansas City” or the first appearance of the song “Oklahoma,” is when Fish leans into the inherent strength of the material.
Trying to make Oklahoma! relevant to new generations is a laudable goal. But a musical that’s as perfect as anything ever written in the medium will never go out of style.
Oklahoma! runs through Nov. 11 in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn. It’s produced by St. Ann’s and Eva Price.