The hottest ticket on Broadway this season is for a show that first premiered over seventy-five years ago.
The latest revival of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, currently playing a limited engagement, reimagines the iconic musical as a reorchestrated piece of theater that is perhaps more relevant than ever before. Audiences are taking note: last week, the show celebrated its fourth consecutive week surpassing 100 percent capacity.
Brilliantly directed by Broadway newcomer Daniel Fish, this bold production of Oklahoma! takes a musical that debuted in 1943 and makes it look and sound shockingly contemporary. Instead of the rowdy honky-tonk kitsch that made the show into a safe choice for high school productions, this take on the material features stripped-back, acoustic renditions of the classic songs. This puts the emphasis on their folky roots rather than on the yeehaw-in-your-face flourishes they’ve become known for.
When it was announced that the production would be relocating from its Off-Broadway home at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn to a Broadway stage, some fans were concerned about a possible loss of the intimacy that made this Oklahoma! so unique. Luckily, this couldn’t be less of an issue in the glorious Circle In The Square Theater, which has been transformed into a cozy barn. It’s so immersive, in fact, that audience members are encouraged to come onto the stage during intermission to enjoy chili and cornbread!
Also making his Broadway debut is Damon Daunno as Curly, the cowboy after the heart of ingénue, Laurey (portrayed beautifully by American Idiot and Hedwig and the Angry Inch alumna Rebecca Naomi Jones). From the moment Daunno starts singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin” to the blood-splattered finale, he proves himself to be an extraordinary vocal powerhouse with impassioned delivery. Even when interjecting the sarcastic humor that defines his take on the leading man, he offers a Jeremy Jordan-meets-Ben Platt croon that is impressively pure, rich and full of precision. This is the first time that audiences are hearing his voice on a Broadway stage; it will certainly not be the last.
The biggest standout, however, is Ali Stroker as Ado Annie. Stroker previously made history as the first actress in a wheelchair to appear on a Broadway stage (in the 2015 Deaf West Theatre revival of Spring Awakening). With this role, Stroker is likely to make history yet again by becoming the first Broadway actress in a wheelchair to win a Tony Award (she’s already been nominated for a Drama League Award, Outer Critics Circle Award and Drama Desk Award for the part).
With her impeccable comedic timing, Stroker’s Ado Annie is full of Annaleigh Ashford-like witticism and laugh-out-loud physical humor. Her take on “I Cain’t Say No” is as funny as her voice is big, demanding that the show pause to allow for the waves of rapturous and frenetic applause that follow its closing note. Each moment that Stroker is on stage is a delight, and anyone who didn’t know her name before entering the theater won’t leave without remembering it.
This Oklahoma! also succeeds by highlighting characters who may not have gotten many moments to shine in previous productions. Nowhere is this truer than in Tony nominee Mary Testa’s sassy take on Aunt Eller. As the matriarchal figure in Laurey’s life, Testa’s Aunt Eller is as wise and authoritative as she is fierce. Her commanding presence as the one to impress before one can successfully woo Laurey is heartfelt, comical and deeply real. Testa’s booming vocals soar through the theater in ways that make Aunt Eller a scene-stealing force to be reckoned with rather than the meek side character she’s typically been relegated to.
Aside from the top-to-bottom phenomenal performances by the actors, this Oklahoma! conveys a sense of political urgency that makes it a vital presence on Broadway in 2019. Not only does the show boast a diverse cast that far more accurately depicts modern-day America than earlier iterations, its daring interpretation of its source materials provides room for far more nuanced discourse about topics such as race relations, gender roles and mental illness.
One resonant way this occurs is through the show’s continuous exploration of Jud’s psyche – particularly in the haunting staging of “Pore Jud Is Daid.” During this number, the theater goes pitch black with the exception of a massive screen projecting black-and-white close-ups of Jud (executed with fragile conviction by Patrick Vaill) and Curly singing to one another. Having a camera zoom in on Jud’s face, complete with tears streaming down his cheeks and snot dribbling from his nose, gives the audience insight into just how damaged and capricious this mysterious character really is.
By highlighting Jud’s instability and desperation in his earlier scenes, the show builds to its traumatic climax in a way that leaves even audience members unfamiliar with the story with a paralyzing nervousness that something truly atrocious is about to occur. When it does, it’s sadly not a shock that someone teetering so over the edge could commit such a monstrous act in a savage attempt to hold onto what he believes inherently belongs to him as a straight white male. The ensuing cultural commentary is unfortunately all too current at a time when black churches remain the targets of hate crimes and the President is an admitted sexual predator who defends violent white supremacists as “very fine people.” It’s remarkable that a musical written so many decades ago still has the ability to have its fingers so firmly on the pulse of what American identity is today.
Truthfully, before seeing this production, I was never much of a fan of Oklahoma! Yet this staggering and poignant revival left me breathless in ways that reminded me of why I love to go to the theater in the first place. In fact, I’m counting down the days until Decca Broadway relaunches their label with this new cast recording so I can relive the majesty of this production all over again.
CLICK HERE to purchase your tickets to Oklahoma! now playing at the Circle In The Square Theatre in New York City.
PHOTOS | LITTLE FANG