When I first started hearing about this new country-fied production of Oklahoma!, my little pea brain flashed to Sinatra’s late-life gag introduction of a song by Rodgers and Hart as “Roy Rogers and William S. Hart,” citing two famous movie cowboys rather than the legendary Broadway composers. I was only able to get tickets very late in the run - which is a lot better than nothing - and wanted to see if what I had been hearing about the production was true, that it rewrites Oklahoma! as if it had been composed by Roy Acuff and Merle Haggard rather than Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Now I can tell you that it does and it doesn’t - while the overall tone of the show is certainly more country-and-western than traditional Broadway, director Daniel Fish and musical director Nathan Koci still keep the essential bones of the show and the songs. For instance, the opener “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” is still a waltz, in fact, it’s waltz-ier than ever.
The idea of a country-and-western Oklahoma! goes back at least to 1970, when TV host Ed Sullivan presented the opening scene with Jeanie C. Riley (of “Harper Valley PTA” fame) as “Laurey” and the legendary Minnie Pearl as “Aunt Eller” on his long-running variety show. If Mr. Fish were to really rewrite the show, he might think to provide Aunt Eller (the excellent Mary Testa) with a solo song of her own, seeing as she’s the first of those matronly pillars of wisdom that re-appear across the entire history of R&H shows, as in Carousel, South Pacific (sort of), The King & I, Cinderella, and especially The Sound of Music; there’s always a sagacious middle aged woman telling young lovers (individually or in pairs) to climb ev’ry mountain. (I also regret that “Gertie Cummings” doesn’t get a song, especially since Mallory Portnoy steals almost every scene with a clarion-like laugh that’s more sexy than obnoxious, as it’s supposed to be.)
Mssr’s. Fish and Koci take considerable liberties with the “Dream Ballet,” in which the theme (known lyrically as “Out of My Dreams”) rendered via a solo electric guitar, heavy on the distortions, clearly modelled on Jimi Hendrix playing the national anthem at Woodstock - however, yes, it’s still in 3/4. The most egregious mistake is that they stick the intermission right in the middle of the dream ballet, as if they didn’t trust the audience’s attention span, or their bladders. In this re-imagining, “Jud Fry” (Patrick Vail) is a full-on psychopath. In “Poor Jud is Daid,” “Curly” (Damon Daunno) seems to be seducing Jud, rather than bunko-ing him as is customary, into committing suicide, and here, Jud’s solo, “Lonely Room” becomes his chilling equivalent of Sweeney Todd’s “Epiphany.”
This version has been described as “darker,” but for most of the stage time, it’s funnier than ever, especially with “Will Parker” played by James Davis as a deadpan comic cowboy who wouldn’t be out of place in a Broadway version of Blazing Saddles. At times it seems like a parody, Oklahoma! as if enacted by the cast of Hee-Haw (with Junior Samples as Will and Gunilla Hutton as Ado Annie), but is all the more enjoyable for that. Which makes the abrupt ending - no spoiler alert here - seem more out-of-place than ever. This is the only part where they fundamentally change the show as conceived by Dick & Ockie (even without actually changing the dialogue), and it’s completely unnecessary; it seems to me that they could have done the actual ending (Curly and Jud in a knife fight, and the drunken heavy winds up falling on his own shiv) and made it disturbing enough. But that’s one of the more important aspects of a classic: you aren’t allowed to take any aspect of it for granted.
A final note about the first thing you see when you enter the Circle in the Square, which is that the walls of this theater-in-the-almost-round are festooned with dozens of decorative rifles and shootin’ irons. Perhaps next, the NRA will commission Mr. Fish to devise a second amendment re-do of Annie Get Your Gun; apparently this is the first-ever right-to-carry production of Rodgers & Hammerstein.
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