Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! has become the musical theatre equivalent of comfort food; like a hearty bowl of chili it’s always there to make us feel warm when we need it, but in the Bard Summerscape production of the beloved musical, we realize that if anything, Oklahoma! has much more in common with the slow cooker where the meal was prepared, than with the final product. It makes sense then, that as audience members take their seats at the LUMA Theater at The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts (which has been arranged to look like a community hall, complete with bright, foil, fringe garlands), they are welcomed by shiny red crockpots with signs that read “HOT!”, a warning referring to the chili within the container, but also to the revelatory staging of the musical we thought we knew so well.
Directed by Daniel Fish, this Oklahoma! does without most of the grandeur associated with a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and is staged as if it was an “unscripted” production. The actors enter and exit from among the audience, they sit on our tables (not without asking if they may first) and the orchestra consists of six Americana musicians, who during key moments become part of the ensemble. The new musical arrangements by Daniel Kluger retain the beauty of Richard Rodgers’ score, but makes it more organic by putting the melodies at the service of the characters. The show begins without the “Overture” and instead we see the ensemble arrive, take their seats, and Damon Daunno’s Curly stand center stage to say “there’s a bright golden haze on the meadow”, only to be echoed by the ensemble, and eventually the band. It’s a rendition of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” that sends chills down the spine, in a production filled with many of those moments.
It certainly helps that on the surface the plot of Oklahoma! seems to be rather simple: cowboy Curly McLain is in love with Laurey Williams (Amber Gray) who happens to love him back, however they’re too proud to get over themselves and accept it. While Laurey’s Aunt Eller (Mary Testa) roots for Curly, the disturbed farmhand Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) wants Laurey all to himself and invites her to come with him to a box social, where eventually all fates will be determined. Subplots include the romantic dilemmas of the flirtatious Ado Annie (Allison Strong) who can’t make up her mind between the noble, but simple minded Will Parker (James Patrick Davis) and the cunning Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Benj Mirman).
In Fish’s interpretation, the people onstage aren’t merely characters but ghosts conjured by campfire storytelling, all bursting to life with Rodgers’ melodies. The exceptional ensemble led by Daunno and Gray, thrives in this revision, which grants traditionally one-note characters with souls all their own. Aunt Eller for instance, goes from being a wise older woman, to embodying the larger-than-life traits Testa brings to her performances, she’s no Auntie Mame, but we know that there’s more going on in her life whenever she’s not dispensing wise advice. Similarly Ado Annie’s “I Cain’t Say No”, as sung by Strong, becomes much more than a comedic tune, as she exclaims “it ain’t so much a question of not knowing what to do”, at the beginning of the song, we understand this is a cry of confusion, as much as it is a free-spirited anthem.
In this production, the women of Oklahoma! are given an agency that they’ve lacked in previous interpretations, none of them were ever really just damsels waiting to be rescued, but here they are provided with sexual freedom removed of any stigma. It’s refreshing to see a production of Oklahoma! where Laurey is obviously dying to take Curly’s clothes off without any shame, and to see Ado Annie be uninterested in men who don’t seem to be interested in her (why should she bother?), similarly Fish’s version gives Gertie (Mallory Portnoy) a chance to be more than the obnoxious girl nobody wants, she instead becomes someone completely self aware of her chances in the dog eat dog world of the frontier.
No longer do we have to pretend that Oklahoma! is merely nostalgia wrapped in gorgeous showtunes, this production invites us to see beyond what we thought we knew. With bold, aesthetic strokes Fish challenges us and excites our senses, this is a show in which smell, hearing, taste and seeing are intertwined. Some scenes are set in the dark, while others are set in corners of the stage that force us to try to find the actors (with the audience members across from us becoming part of the stage geography).
This is perhaps where Oklahoma!’s greatest success lies, it opens our eyes to reveal multiple layers we’d neglected, or chosen not to see, such as the downright xenophobic traits of the community who chooses to reject Jud without ever trying to reform him, or Jud’s very own shame upon realizing he’s been living in a class system all along (does he even know what a class system is?). Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! works as a chilling dissection of the barbaric foundations upon which America was built, and the fact that the setting forces audience members to engage with their neighbors as a community can sometimes seem downright perverse. But fear not, during intermission, everyone is served hot chili, corn bread and lemonade which make us feel safe again, at least for as long as we can maintain the illusion of civilization.