The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye, and so is my blood pressure, thanks to the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”
In director Daniel Fish’s pretentious production — which opened Sunday on Broadway, fresh from Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse — everything you cherish about this classic has been taken out behind the barn and shot, replaced by an auteur’s bag of tricks and a thesis on gun control and westward expansion. Here, the West was won by a culture of violence and toxic masculinity — what fun!
The audience at the Circle in the Square Theatre sits on three sides of the stage, the plywood-covered walls plastered with rifles. The pit orchestra’s more like a seven-person bluegrass band, decked out in plaid, and the house lights are cranked all the way up. This looks like a hootenanny, you think.
Well, hold your horses. The lights stay on in the house for most of the show, maybe to create intimacy. But the almost constant brightness, which changes only a handful of times to neon green or red and at one point goes dark entirely, muddies the storytelling. No scene seems any different from the next, and the whole thing is a mostly joyless chore.
The story remains the same. Two potential suitors, cowboy Curly (Damon Daunno) and farm hand Jud (Patrick Vaill), both dream of accompanying Laurey (played with a furrowed brow by Rebecca Naomi Jones) to the box social and beyond.
You may recall Curly as a heroic Hugh Jackman type, who grins through “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin,’ ” and Jud as an Andre the Giant type. No longer. Now, both of them are stick-thin creeps with greasy hair. Lucky for us, they have awful purty singing voices.
So does Ali Stroker, who plays Ado Annie, the gal who can’t say no, opposite James Davis’ doofy Will Parker. The funny, sexier-than-usual pair tries their best to keep things light in this giant frown of a staging, as does Will Brill as their third wheel, oily peddler Ali Hakim.
In fact, they and Mary Testa’s pushy Aunt Eller would be a fine addition to any other production of “Oklahoma!” But their instruction here would seem to be “have a lousy time.” The actors lounge around on benches, speaking quietly with no particular investment in the scene. When we arrive at the should-be showstoppers — the title song, “The Farmer and the Cowman” — choreographer John Heginbotham has the cast lazily amble around as if drunk.
Agnes De Mille’s famous Dream Ballet has been ditched for an overlong, gymnastics floor exercise danced, with admirable muscularity, by Gabrielle Hamilton in little more than a sparkly T-shirt reading “Dream Baby Dream.” Lovely.
Some of Fish’s ideas are fun. The chili and cornbread doled out to the audience at intermission is tasty, and the women snapping ears of corn during “Many A New Day” gives the scene rebellious energy. But in putting his actors in modern dress, making guns his wallpaper and forcing every moment that a gun is brandished or even mentioned to have bombastic significance, Fish clearly is saying he’s not a great fan of the culture of the Great Plains — of yesteryear or yesterday. In a preposterously heavy-handed sequence, he even has Jud present Curly with a pistol, rather than the usual knife, which leads to a shocking but inane conclusion. All this, in a hokey old show that includes the lyric, “Gonna give ya barley, carrots and potaters.” Listening to the New York audience applauding their own virtuosity makes a guy want to put this “Oklahoma!” out to pasture.
By Johnny Oleksinski