Don’t let the cornbread and vegan chili served at intermission fool you — there is nothing heartwarming about the heartland in director Daniel Fish’s brilliant, brutalizing reinterpretation of the 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma!
Twelve years after first deconstructing the midwestern fable for a student production at Bard College, Fish has refined this great myth of American exceptionalism into snake oil. The fantastic production, which reflects a sinister side to this country’s unrelenting and self-infatuated optimism, is now playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway.
Although it displaces Oklahoma!’s cheery moral center, Fish’s version is more reinterpretation than adaptation. He preserves every line and melody from the original score. Even the story’s narrative beats have remained the same, with critical exception made for the plot’s final moments.
The musical still begins in 1906 in Oklahoma territory where Laurey Williams (a strong-willed Rebecca Naomi Jones) must make a consequential choice between suitors: the dreamy cowboy Curly McClain (a deceptively seductive Damon Daunno) and the loner farmhand Jud Fry (played with unprecedented vulnerability by Patrick Vaill). The B-plot parodies this do-si-do drama with the “girl who can’t say no” Ado Annie (an inimitable Alie Stroker), who must choose between an unwilling Persian peddler named Ali Hakim (the dopey but lovable Will Brill) and a faithful, if dimwitted, cowboy named Will Parker (played with overeager attraction by James Davis).
Set designer Laura Jellinek has replaced the “bright golden haze on the meadows” with blond plywood boards nailed into the theater’s walls and floors. Cheap tinsel and a string of lights glitter from the roof of this makeshift bunker of American hell, which also features a muddy greyscale mural of farmlands on the upstage wall. A row of tables line the stage where audiences can sit; chili and corn husks are arranged for later eating and shucking. Entering this Podunk community hall, audiences might also notice the numerous guns that decorate the theater walls like a couple dozen Chekhovian alarms ringing at once.
Stewing within this crucible of midwestern malaise, we see our motley crew of frontiersman struggle to live alongside each other. Fish elevates what superficially appears as a petty drama into a commentary about the structural inequalities of the Wild West. Jud becomes the director’s avatar of angst. The villain of Oklahoma!, he has a hot temper and slow mind, a dangerous combo catalyzed by an unreciprocated lust for Laurey, who complains that the farmhand is stalking her and later fires him for making untoward advances.
Most productions present this storyline as bald-faced sexual harassment, confirming Jud’s other negative qualities — among them, an ideation of arson and multiple murder attempts against Curly. Fish complicates this narrative early on by exploring how Jud’s treachery may be a product of social alienation. Mocked and manipulated because of his poverty, Jud is considered easy pickings for the the townsfolk, including Curly, who literally strolls up to the farmhand’s home to entreat him toward suicide. All this for a date to the lunchbox social? The cruel irony is that the duet, “Pore Jud is Daid” is normally played for laughs. But because Vaill trades in thuggish buffoonery for shy awkwardness, it becomes unclear for audiences exactly who ignites this powder-keg of tragedy.
For better or worse, Fish tries to dissociate characters from their actions, toying at a larger thesis about the ills of toxic masculinity writ large onto American society. Although I won’t spoil how Fish changes the play’s final moments, it’s clear that he wants to telegraph a demonic truth about American identity. Nationalism is pathological because it forces people to feed on their own vulnerabilities, causing a myriad of self-inflicted wounds in the process. Here, the cast may sing in unison (“We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand!”), but nothing is “OK” in Oklahoma! because nothing ever was.
When Oklahoma! first premiered on Broadway more than 75 years ago, critics and audiences talked about it with as much reverence as they now discuss Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. It was one of the first musicals to fully integrate song and dance into a narrative that was equal parts comedy and drama. Running for five years through the end of World War II and the beginning of the postwar years, Oklahoma! was candy for a sugar-rationed populace; the musical provided a melismatic escape for battle-weary Americans who entered the 1950s dreaming of a new golden age for their country akin to what westward expansion offered some at the end of the 19th century.
Decades after its first opening, the musical has gained a reputation for being sweet enough to cause a toothache, especially for younger audiences who have grown up accustomed to visceral, tragicomic works like Spring Awakening and Next to Normal. (And let’s be honest, thousands of janky high school productions have not reflected kindly on this American classic.) But Rodgers and Hammerstein have a long track record of painting their protagonist’s moral proclivities in shades of grey. Billy Bigelow has violent tendencies in Carousel; Nellie Forbush is pretty racist in South Pacific; and the King of Siam is an undaunted misogynist in The King and I. But the characters of Oklahoma! have always come off as squeaky clean by comparison — until Fish’s production.
On the surface, Oklahoma! is a silly story about a girl who must decide which boy she wants to take to a picnic, but the show has always reflected national anxieties boiling below a cheery veneer of unity. Fish’s version reminds audiences that this musical bleeds red, white, and blue.
There is a dream ballet that occurs at the second act’s start. Performed by Gabrielle Hamilton, the 13-minute dance is choreographer John Heginbotham’s response to Agnes de Mille’s groundbreaking original. Barefoot and bald, Hamilton gallops across the stage wearing a glittering shirt that reads: “Dream Baby Dream.” It’s a ghostly waltz set to electric guitar and telephonic versions of the Oklahoma! score. The dancer is as imposing as she is captivating, becoming an embodiment of Laurey’s latent sexuality and prowess. She holds the audience’s gaze and transmutes it into a series of sultry body isolations and modernist twists.
And then there is a moment where cowboy boots fall from the sky. Jud appears and begins crawling across the stage on his stomach toward the shoes. Townsfolk are around but just stand and emotionlessly stare straight ahead. Jud releases a silent scream as he brushes the boots offstage with his arms, and then he disappears backstage. Like most of this production of Oklahoma! the scene was as compelling as it was frightening.
Oklahoma! continues through September 1 for a limited engagement at the Circle in the Square Theatre (1633 Broadway, Midtown, Manhattan).