Oh, What a Beautiful Mourning: The New ‘Oklahoma!’

Oklahama — oh my. 

You’ve heard, probably, about the drastically revisionist new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic musical, which played to rave reviews in Brooklyn last year and has now landed on Broadway, where I saw it for the first time. It is certainly a striking production, eccentric to the max, one of the most radical things I’ve ever seen on Broadway. 

Why radical? Let me count the ways. Even the sunniest numbers — like the famous opener, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” one of the happiest songs in all of musical theater — are infused with a dark undertone; when they’re not singing, most of the other actors are somewhere onstage scowling.  The characters rarely engage physically with one other, often reciting dialogue while separated by vast distances across the Circle in the Square’s big theater-in-the-round stage. Ado Annie, the girl who “cain’t say no,” tools around in a wheelchair. The famous Agnes DeMille “dream ballet”  is given a fierce, astringent, modernist reboot by a black dancer (Gabrielle Hamilton) in a T-shirt that says “Dream Baby Dream.”  The house lights are turned on full blast for most of the show, but two scenes are played in pitch blackness. The traditional villain, Jud Fry, is the most sympathetic character in the show. 

I loved and hated it in about equal measure. Daniel Fish’s take is bold, original and thought-through — a deconstruction with the courage of its convictions.  Some of it works. Oklahoma! has always been the most dramatically thin of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classics (Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I all have more to chew on), and Fish has shaken it up, removed the saccharine squareness and stressed the brutal, morally ambiguous side of the American frontier experience. Musically, the production is also quite satisfying, with the usual orchestra replaced by a seven-piece string band onstage, which gives the songs a country-western freshness, along with some grace notes of Twilight Zone tension.

On the other hand, don’t we have a right to a little romance in a Rodgers & Hammerstein show? The central relationship  between Curly (a guitar-strumming Damon Daunno) and Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones) is hard to have any feeling for; her flirtatious, hard-to-get posturing in the opening scenes play more as bitterness, even hostility. The \sympathetic treatment of Jud Fry, the hired hand who also hankers after Laurie, may be (as Frank Rich suggests in New York Magazine) more faithful to the original conception of the character. But it makes Laurie’s fear of him confusing; he doesn’t strike us as either physically dangerous or a sexual threat.

Then, too, for a production of Oklahoma! that purports to expose the dark side of the founding of America’s 46th state, it’s odd that, amid all the diversity casting, there’s no presence or mention of the people who were most victimized by that founding: Native Americans. Ignoring that elephant in the room, it seems to me, betrays the production as less a historically accurate revision than simply a clever, contrarian artistic stunt.

6 thoughts on “Oh, What a Beautiful Mourning: The New ‘Oklahoma!’

  1. Ah, Richard, once again you are the voice of reason. I’m trying to stay open-minded about this production, but everything I’ve read makes it smack so of graduate thesis by M.A. THeatre Arts candidate.

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