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What’s worth re-examining from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1943 classic Oklahoma? A lot, it turns out. The new, Tony-winning revival, currently playing at Circle in the Square, has set the theater world buzzing once again about this genre-defining show (it was one of the first musicals in which the songs helped drive the plot).
The setting: 1906 in Oklahoma, just as it’s about to become a U.S. state.
As lovers of the original and the film it inspired The Knick team was curious to see what exactly what was different in the revival, and went to a recent evening performance. Here’s what we loved about Oklahoma on Broadway.
Oklahoma has some of the lushest songs in Broadway history, with the confident boom of Curly McLain singing that everything’s going his way. But in director Daniel Fish’s production, everything’s been whittled down. The big orchestra’s now a small band, with a mandolin, acoustic guitar, banjo, violin and bass, playing the show’s familiar songs with a country twang. The expansive Oklahoma prairies have been replaced with a spartan cluster of picnic tables (with a fair amount of American flag bunting and rifles lining the walls).
The Circle in the Square might just be our favorite Broadway theater, with just a few hundred seats surround the center stage. In Once on This Island, also staged here, we saw all the action from up close, as the lights shined onstage just feet from where we were. In Oklahoma, the lights shine on the audience as well, making it clear that we, too, are part of the plot development. It’s intense—from the very beginning when cowboy Damon Daunno (Damon Daunno) comes out with his guitar, singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” with a slow, wired, and undeniably sexual charge to it. As the New York Times writes, in its Critic’s Pick review, “Doing his best to project a confidence he doesn’t entirely feel, to the accompaniment of a down-home guitar, he seems so palpably young. As is often true of big boys with unsettled hormones, he also reads as just a little dangerous.” The potential-for-danger vibes continue, even as his boyish charms seduce us and Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones), a farm girl who lives with her Aunt Eller (Mary Testa). Curly woos her with slow-paced, face-to-face singing, with lilting high notes and breathy duets. Laurey plays hard to get, in part to spite Curly, but also because she has conflicting thoughts about another man: Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill). Jud is a hired hand on the farm, usually played by boorish men to highlight his gruffness. Here, he’s wiry, with a lost-puppy look about him. He’s also very into Laurey, and with none of Curly’s allure to his advantage.
Throughout the two acts, the audience watches Laurey’s intense and steamy interactions with these two men. See a peek in this clip from “People Will Say We’re in Love.”
Without changing the script or the songs, the Oklahoma revival has entirely altered the musical’s outlook. It puts the dark undertones—gun violence, corrupt justice systems, mental illness, rape—front and center, begging the question of how right Curly is when he sings “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” The original renditions have always been jubilant and hopeful, knowing full well that prospects were great for all of its characters, including Oklahoma itself (and excluding Jud). Once Jud’s taken care of, everyone else can move on and focus on how the “brand new state, gonna treat you great!” In 2019, Fish and his version of Oklahoma throw some serious doubt that all’s well in America.
Yes, this Oklahoma is moodier. But it’s also vivacious, thanks to an immensely talented cast backed by the on-stage band. We haven’t even mentioned Will Parker and Ado Annie, the show’s foil couple to Curly and Laurey. For her hilarious and boisterous portrayal of Ado Annie, Ali Stroker became the first person in a wheelchair to win a Tony (she also nabbed a Drama Desk Award). Daunno, Jones, Vaill and Testa were all nominated for Drama Desk Awards, too. And throughout the show, we couldn’t help but watch the band, who seemed to be having a veritable hootenanny playing the music.
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Looking for the right show to see? Let The Knick be your guide. Check out our reviews of some of Broadways biggest current hits, like Moulin Rouge!, Hadestown, Hamilton, Frozen, Come from Away, Mean Girls, and more.