Who knew that the beautiful morning of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 classic “Oklahoma!” cast such very long (and very dark) shadows? But director Daniel Fish has stripped down this chestnut of the American musical theater to its barest, rawest elements — including the violence and sexuality that always seemed to simmer just beneath the surface.
This production, which opened Sunday at Broadway’s horseshoe-shaped Circle in the Square, boasts just 12 performers and a seven-piece band that countrifies Rodgers’ score with mandolin, banjo and accordion — as well as a mean electric guitar that screeches to life during choreographer John Heginbotham’s radical reinterpretation of Agnes de Mille’s second act dream ballet (performed by the athletic Gabrielle Hamilton in a sparkly t-shirt that reads “Dream Baby Dream”).
But Fish’s biggest innovation is to pull back the set pieces and put the turn-of-the-20th-century characters — and their many contradictions — center stage. Rebecca Naomi Jones’ Laurey is both an ingenue and a tease, resisting the advances of the cowboy she clearly likes (Damon Daunno’s Curly) and yet truly fearful of the sullen, stalkerish attentions of the farm manager Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill).
But unlike previous productions that stack the deck against Jud, here Laurey seems to face a real choice between the ruggedly handsome bad boy Jud, whom she’s all too eager to smooch in the dark before he takes things too far, and the safer, more conventional Curly. And Jones portrays her as a completely believable (and modern) young woman who does not seem to know her own mind — and lets her impulses and in-the-moment pettiness betray her true desires.
Daunno’s Curly is also not a straight-forward all-American hero, given his hesitance around Laurey and his equally menacing exchange with his rival, Jud — an encounter staged in near-total darkness to accentuate the ways in which both men can seem predatory, with more than a hint of violence, in their pursuit of Laurey. Sorry, Curly fans — #HimToo.
And Vaill’s Jud is no mustache-twisting villain, but a wiry, standoffish figure whose taciturn nature may make him an unlikely suitor but whose passion is no less keen. As played by Vaill with sunken cheeks and understated menace, he seems to have wandered over from a Sam Shepard play just a county or two over.
Ali Stroker (“Glee,” “Spring Awakening”) shows similar shades of complexity as Ado Annie, the fun-loving flirt who finds she just can’t say no when a fella talks pretty to her. She belts out her numbers with a delightful Dolly Partonish twang, as she goes for a spin (literally) with both the dim-witted cowboy Will (James Davis) and the Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Will Brill, savvily denuding most of the role’s racist overtones), whose most conniving ways involve extricating himself from an unwanted engagement to Annie.
In the belting department, though, few can rival the Mermanlike instrument of Mary Testa, who plays Laurey’s Aunt Eller with a no-nonsense brassiness that cuts through any of the show’s nostalgic chaff. And it is her willingness to lean heavily on the scales of justice to reward a favored son that resonates in this retelling — lines treated as throwaways in most productions are slowed down here to suggest the parochial hypocrisy of a society not too far removed from its lawless Wild West origins.
As with many a reimagining of a classic, not all of Fish’s gambits entirely work. That Act 2 dream ballet, reworked since the show’s run last fall at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, is overlong and dramatically muddy. And his most radical departure from Oscar Hammerstein’s script comes in the finale with the decidedly understated return of Jud at the wedding of Curly and Laurey.
The scene carries a jolt — one anticipated by the starkness of Laura Jellinek’s set design, with a wall full of rifle racks looming around the auditorium — but the altered motivations for the climactic confrontation do not entirely track. The scene is a transfixing coup de theatre, but it doesn’t feel entirely earned.
What it does, however, is underscore the entirely American strain of tragedy that beats beneath this classic story. Even the title song, usually imbued with the sunny, can-do optimism of the war era, becomes in this revelatory production less an anthem of pride than of stubborn defiance. They know they belong to the land, all right, but it seems they still have to convince themselves of its grandness.