Review: “Oklahoma!” at Bard Summerscape
By Dan Shaw
Everything is up to date at Bard Summerscape, where director Daniel Fish has gone as far as he can go in reimagining Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (which opened on Broadway in 1943), transforming it into an edgy, immersive and sexy musical.
If you’ve seen Oklahoma! performed at junior high schools, colleges, community theaters and on Broadway (as I have), you will be awed by how the familiar feels as fresh as the just-shucked corn piled on the set as you take your seat at one of the long picnic-style tables that ring the stage in two tiers.
Scenic designer Laura Jellinek has transformed the black box LUMA Theater into a rustic setting made of plywood with a tinge of the Brooklyn hipster DIY aesthetic. The accomplished actors and new musical arrangements give the production a thoroughly contemporary attitude. You know this production is like “a bright golden haze on the meadow” when the swarthy Damon Daunno (who plays Curly) opens the show with a bluesy rendition of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin” that he performs with the swagger of the young Elvis Presley.
As Laury, the girl of his dreams, Amber Gray is not demure, a far cry from Shirley Jones’ portrayal in the 1955 movie. The sexual frisson between Curly and Laury is hardly innocent, but it’s still family friendly. When Daunno sings “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” it becomes a true song of seduction. The lyrics “Don’t you wisht y’d go on forever and ud never stop” make you envision Curly and Laury enjoying a long night of lovemaking on the edge of a cornfield.
As the promiscuous and likable Ado Annie, Allison Strong dressed in a tank top, barely-there denim cut-offs and cowboy boots looks as if she walked right off the set of Girls. When she sings “I Cain’t Say No,” it’s less a cheerful, cornball showstopper than a Nashville ballad that conveys her feisty sense of independence and unbridled pleasure in keeping company with a variety of men. And when Gray sings “Many a New Day,” it comes across as a defiant feminist anthem.
Jud Fry, the farmhand who lives in the smoke house, is not the usual monstrous sociopath, and you feel empathy for his alienation and anomie. The ruggedly handsome Patrick Vaill makes Jud a misunderstood bad boy who should not be looked down upon but given a second chance.
Unlike other productions of Oklahoma! I’ve seen, Aunt Eller, Will Parker and Ali Hakim don’t come across as caricatures. Mary Testa, James Patrick Davis and Benji Merman respectively imbue their roles with “plen’y of heart and plen’y of hope.” Because every member of the audience sits just steps from the stage and the actors sometimes sit or dance on the tables, the performances have a verisimilitude that is as engaging as it is unexpected.
After intermission, the audience returns to the theater where they’re served lemonade, cornbread and chili (that has been simmering in crockpots on the tables in front of them during the first act). You feel part of the hoedown that ignites Act 2 as the company square dances to “The Farmer and the Cowman.” With a bluegrass style band on stage, the music has a country twang that pays homage to the original score while making it much more appropriate to the book.
Without irony or cynicism, director Fish has breathtakingly updated Oklahoma! and maintained its all-American spirit while making it a musical of our time. If it moves to New York, as it ought to, Oklahoma! would no doubt become a cult show that would endear a new generation to the magic of Rodgers & Hammerstein.
Certainly, aficionados of Oklahoma! will appreciate Fish’s innovative interpretation more than those unfamiliar with the show. Nevertheless, anyone who loves live musical theater should immediately try to get tickets to Oklahoma! at Bard Summerstage where the avant garde is accessible and entertaining. Oh, what a beautiful morning it is the day after seeing this extraordinary show.
Oklahoma! (through July 19)
The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College