Let’s get one thing straight: this isn’t your grandmother’s “Oklahoma!” But that’s ok because the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is sturdy enough to withstand any interpretation as long as it’s thought well enough through. And this one’s quite a humdinger. You will just need to check your folksy feel-good memories at the door and then allow director Daniel Fish to take you for a ride on his audacious, sexy, upending take on the great American classic.
Keep in mind, the music and the libretto are basically just as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote them. But there’s a dark undertone in this version. The actors still sing of a beautiful morning but suddenly every lyric emerges with deeper meaning and you will find that this Oklahoma becomes more of a play with music. And the line between the good guys and bad guys is somewhat blurred. What we’ve long regarded as a basic love story featuring cowboy Curly and independent-minded Laurey threatened by the hired hand Jud Fry is not so simple after all.
We’re forced to re-examine all of the relationships as the gender dynamic plays a more central role. We’re more aware of the brazen sexism in the culture. And suddenly Curly and Jud as rivals for Laurey’s affections are more alike than different.
Despite the re-focus, there’s still much fun, joy and humor to be found in this “Oklahoma!” And did I mention sexy? Just watch as the guys slap those chaps. Terrific orchestrations treat every song with a unique twang. There’s even a heavy metal version of the dream ballet.
And if the performers lack the vocal quality you’ve come to expect, they are still sublime. Remember the emphasis here is the drama and the comedy. Mary Testa as Aunt Eller delivers brilliantly on both fronts. Will Brill sells the role of the oily peddler Ali Hakim with great finesse. Forget that Ali Stroker is wheel-chair bound. As Ado Annie, the girl who can’t say no, we say yes, yes, yes. She’s matched to perfection with James Davis as her beau the dim bulb Will. The character of Jud Fry, the musical’s villain undergoes the biggest shift. As played by the terrific Patrick Vaill, he’s creepy but also sympathetic here, more of a misunderstood outsider who’s victimized in the end by the corn-fed townsfolk. Rebecca Naomi Jones, lovely as always, gives Laurey a serious me-too spin, and with his guitar, Damon Daunno’s swaggering Curly is like a matinee idol right out of a Coen Brothers movie, a rare star in the making.
Musical buffs may be disappointed, but director Fish and his fine company are more interested in the message behind the words. And if you listen real hard, you’ll find that in this “Oklahoma!” like the rest of the modern world, no one really gets to ride off into the sunset.