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‘Oklahoma!’ Theater Review: Rodgers & Hammerstein Stripped Down

Director Daniel Fish’s revelatory and stripped-down production breathes new life into a classic

Even before you enter the plywood-lined performance space at St. Ann’s Warehouse, a sign outside warning that “only children over the age of 12 will be admitted” signals that this will not be your typical revival of “Oklahoma!”

Indeed, director Daniel Fish has stripped down Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 classic to its barest, rawest elements — including the violence and sexuality that always seemed to simmer just beneath the surface.

This production 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 lithe Gabrielle Hamilton in 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 farm manager Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill).

Yet Jones portrays her as a completely believable (and modern) young woman who does not know her own mind — and lets her impulses and in-the-moment pettiness betray her true desires.

Here Curly is not the obvious all-American hero, given his hesitance around Laurey but 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.

Vaill’s Jud is no mustache-twisting villain, but a wiry, standoffish figure whose taciturn nature makes 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 (“Spring Awakening”) shows similar shades of complexity as Ado Annie, the flustered girl who finds she just can’t say no. She belts out her numbers with a Dolly Partonish twang, as she goes for a spin (literally) with both the dim-witted cowboy Will (James Davis) and the Persian peddler (Michael Nathanson, 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.

As with many a reimagining of a classic, not all of Fish’s gambits entirely work. 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 to one side of 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 earned.

What it does, however, is underscore the entirely American strain of tragedy that beats beneath a classic musical usually cast in the sunlight of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” In this revelatory production, that morning sun casts some very long and very dark shadows.