Who knows if Harper Lee had Oklahoma! on her mind when she came up with the fate that befalls To Kill A Mockingbird‘s villainous Bob Ewell, but after seeing Daniel Fish’s astonishing reimagining of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic musical, opening tonight on Broadway at Circle in the Square, we’d all be wise to assume nothing.
Ewell, you’ll remember from the novel, the book and Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation, gets his comeuppance when the reclusive Boo Radley, saving the lives of young Jem and Scout, plunges a kitchen knife into their attacker’s ribcage. Atticus and the sheriff decide fair’s fair – Bob Ewell, they’ll tell everyone, fell on his own knife.
In the original Oklahoma!, the no-account brute Jud Fry meets a similar fate. No more. In Fish’s telling, Poor Jud dies at gun point, in blood more or less cold, and the good folk we’ve come to know and love all these years turn a very blind eye. Prairie justice at its most literal.
Presented Off Broadway at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse last fall, Fish’s stunning revival, with its country & western musical stylings, rockabilly cats, chili at intermission and blood on the tracks, has found its perfect Broadway home at the in-the-round Circle. With the house lights turned up through most of the running time – when darkness occasionally enters, it’s total – Oklahoma! has us all at the barn dance. Everyone is complicit.
With racks of shotguns marking just about every wall of the theater – there are no walls on the expansive stage floor, around which the audience is seated – this immersive Oklahoma! is at once minimalist and explosive. Below shiny fringed streamers (later replaced by party lights) hanging from the ceiling, the modern-dress characters (chaps and jeans, cowboy hats, trucker caps, tank tops, flannel shirts and Stray Cat suits) move about and on top of long tables.
The dialogue hasn’t changed – you can check for yourself by re-watching the sunny 1955 movie version – but every dark undercurrent has come swirling to the surface. (Make America what again?) Those familiar songs – “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'”, “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, “People Will Say We’re in Love” and, of course, the title number – are all present and accounted for, but the usual show tune gloss is gone, replaced with the twang and punch of roots rock alt-country.
Set in the early days of the last century in the territory that had yet to become the state of Oklahoma, the story (book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, music by Richard Rodgers, all based on Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play Green Grow The Lilacs) chronicles the longings and loves of the cowboys and the farmers and the women who alternately suffer and choose them. Everyone’s gearing up for the annual box social, hoping to pair up with the special someone they’ve been eyeing all year, or longer.
The basics are intact: cowpoke Curly wants Laurey, a farm girl who’s too proud to admit her true feelings, giving false hope to farmhand Jud Fry. Goofy cowboy Will Parker, back from an eye-opening trip to Kansas City, is boots-over-spurs smitten with Ado Annie, the original girl “who cain’t say no” to whichever pretty boy or smooth talker happens to be in her presence – whether he be the determined Will or the opportunistic, if no harm-meaning, traveling peddler Ali Hakim.
But loglines and character summaries fail here, as each character is upended from tradition and brought to vivid new life. Damon Daunno’s Curly isn’t the aw-shucks hero of Oklahoma!s past. He’s slinky and self-assured, a sexy Jeff Buckley hipster with a Buddy Holly hiccup. And Jud, typically played, as by the film’s Rod Steiger, as a threatening thug, is here inhabited by a wispy Patrick Vaill with the wiry, hair-trigger menace of a jilted stalker. He’s a sociopath with nothing to lose.
Laurey, played by Rebecca Naomi Jones with a surface calmness that can’t disguise a panic wide as the frontier, sees the danger in Jud, and maybe even in Curly. In this Oklahoma!, Laurey’s hard-to-get stance is less a pose than reluctance: Does she love Curly, or is he just the safer bet? Does it matter?
As Ado Annie, actress Ali Stroker (who uses a wheelchair) is an unstoppable force, funny and endlessly appealing, and she’s matched by James Davis’ Will Parker.
As Aunt Eller, the excellent Mary Testa has more the air of a settled-down, no-nonsense biker chick than the crotchety old woman usually portrayed. She’s the soul of the town and the production, making her involvement in the final, malevolent gang-up against the outsider Jud all the more wrenching.
We first sense that certain malevolence in one of Fish’s showiest gambits (not the showiest – more of that shortly), as the usually comic “Poor Jud Is Daid” number, in which Curly attempts to convince his romantic rival that suicide would be a step up from his scurvy life. As the theater is suddenly plunged into dark, huge, live close-ups of Jud’s face, first bewildered and then heartbroken, are projected on a wall of the theater. The malevolence this time is in the seductive cruelty of Curly’s taunting.
Fish is setting a stage here for the bloody final act, tempting us with a sympathy for the loner Jud, a sympathy we extend him (or anyone, really) at our peril. The violence that finally arrives is shocking, though no more so than the production’s most outrageous risk: The contemporary dance of Laurey’s dream sequence, choreographed by John Heginbotham and performed by Gabrielle Hamilton, an African-American dancer wearing a glittery, oversized t-shirt with the words “Dream Baby Dream” emblazoned across the front.
With the score making an abrupt shift in style to something like the electric squall of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner,” Oklahoma! rings out with a nod to the sublime, violent beauty Hendrix found in our national anthem. Is it so surprising Fish finds it on the plains?