"Country a-changin', got to change with it," says the curly-headed cowpoke.
That prophetic statement hangs heavy over a new production of "Oklahoma!," the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic that recently opened at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn in a re-imagined and decidedly darker version that emphasizes the grit and violence of a territory about to become a state at the turn of the 20th century.
"I just really tried to emphasize what I thought was there in the material," says Daniel Fish, a director usually associated with far more experimental works and the force behind this production, which was first done in 2015 at Bard College's annual SummerScape festival in upstate New York. "It wasn't a conscious choice to make it darker."
In a sense, that darkness has always been there, says Damon Daunno, who plays cowpoke Curly. "Taking away all the bells and whistles, you really get to hear this language as it was written," he says. "The darkness is enhanced and sort of reveals itself."
Often, says Ali Stroker, who plays Ado Annie, the musical is done so "the heavier parts are brushed over, the darkness is not addressed." But this approach, says the "Glee" star who made history as the first wheelchair-using actor to perform on Broadway (in Deaf West Theatre's 2015 production of "Spring Awakening"), brings a heavy dose of timeliness. "I think that with where we are in the world, it's important to touch on those kind of things that happen in communities. It paints a picture of our country . . . it really reveals the good and the bad."
The production has a heavy emphasis on community. Instead of a traditional theater, audiences enter a vast, brightly lit hall. The front row is seated at long wooden tables dotted with red pots of the chili that will be served at intermission. Colorful banners hang from the ceiling, and it all looks ready for a neighborly social — until you notice the multiple racks of guns on the back wall, the ever-present sense of danger there for all to see.
The tale of Curly and Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones), the farm girl he's set his sights on, remains the traditional love story, of course, and the words are virtually untouched. Fish revitalizes it with subtle — and sometimes not-so-subtle — body language and quiet, almost whispered line readings. With the actors practically in the audience's lap, there's a rare intimacy. In a video promoting the Bard production, Fish talked about the importance of that proximity, "trying to get the audience as close to the experience of the show as I can, almost get them inside of it."
"This is a production that asks the audience to participate and not necessarily in an easy or obvious way," he says, noting in the video that he's "approaching 'Oklahoma!' as if it were a new work," imagining it "free of expectations, free of any preconceived ideas or assumptions." He's using a much smaller cast than usual, with virtually no traditional ensemble, and a small band playing period-appropriate instruments like banjos and fiddles.
Among the more drastic departures is the "Dream" ballet that typically closes the first act but now opens the second and bears almost no resemblance to the famed work of Agnes de Mille. The contemporary choreography by John Heginbotham is mostly a solo for a dancer who wears a sequined T-shirt proclaiming "Dream Baby Dream." Fish says he's loathe to talk much about the thinking behind the piece. "It was something we struggled a lot with at Bard," he says, adding that he and Heginbotham "worked very hard to get it the way we wanted it to be." Even he's a little unclear, noting that what he thinks it is "changes every time I see it." But ultimately, he says, "it provides a lens for the audience . . . I wouldn't want to interfere with the audience's experience of that."
Another pivotal point in the show comes when Curly confronts Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill plays the villainous farmhand with his eye on Laurey) in his smokehouse. As the scene starts, the theater is plunged into darkness, and at that moment, "you hear a hundred little shifts in the seats and gasps and whispers," says Daunno, noting the palpable tension that stems from not knowing what's coming. "It immediately brings the room to this sort of pin-drop silence," he says. Before the scene ends, there's a spooky "Blair Witch" moment, when a night vision camera picks up close-ups of both actors. The grotesque, distorted vision is part of the brilliance of Fish, says Daunno. "It speaks to what Daniel is trying to highlight about what we can do to each other."
If you wonder what Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II might have thought of all this, Ted Chapin has some answers. As president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, he serves as a gatekeeper, guarding the R&H canon with ferocious attention to every aspect of a proposed production. He worked closely with Fish on this one, noting all the potential pitfalls in the process. "There's no such thing as a sure thing in the theater," he says, pointing to his statement in the program: "Rodgers & Hammerstein took risks, and so should we."
Chapin also gave his blessing to a production this summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in which both main couples were gay, approving that one because he'd worked closely with director Bill Rauch and recognized "his passion" for the project. Translation: Don't expect a quick repeat of that particular adaptation.
For Chapin, it was the sense of community that most attracted him to Fish's project. "Community is a very important aspect of 'Oklahoma!,' " he says, noting that when he first saw it at Bard, he was most impressed with the power of the play when done "without the gingham . . . it shows the strength of what those two guys wrote."
Not to say that Chapin was on board with everything Fish wanted to do. The brutal ending of the Bard production was "too much," and he asked for revisions. Details would constitute an unforgivable spoiler, but "they did listen," he says. Still, the final scene remains unexpected and not at all like the original. When the cast launches into "Oklahoma!," usually sung as a joyful, hopeful finale, you cannot miss the intensity.
Fish never said specifically what he wants, explains Daunno, giving the cast the opportunity to "let it be whatever we need it to be in that moment." Everyone makes it a "personal catharsis," he says. "I personally use it as a sort of banshee cry, to all the folks who have been wrongfully murdered and displaced throughout the making of America . . . there is a ton of anger but also devastation and heartbreak."
KEEPING DIFFERENT 'COMPANY'
Bobby is now Bobbie in a rethinking of Stephen Sondheim's "Company," about to open in London. That's right, the commitment-phobic character is now played by a woman (Rosalie Craig).
That changes, well, almost everything. Sondheim has given his OK to the production, under the direction of Marianne Elliott ("War Horse," "Angels in America"). "What's there to lose?" he asked in an interview with the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. "It can only make the play either interesting or, if you dislike it . . . dislikable."
At this point details are sketchy. We know that a number of the characters' names have changed — April becomes Andy, Marta becomes PJ, Kathy becomes Theo. And one of the show's funniest songs, "I'm Not Getting Married Today," is performed by a gay couple now, Jamie and Alex.
Skipping the gender swapping is Bobbie's friend Joanne, the multiple-married, multiple-divorced, martini-slugging dowager, made famous by Elaine Stritch. In this production, she's played by Northport's Patti LuPone and we suspect that as in past productions (she's done the role in concert versions), when she turns on the vitriol for "The Ladies Who Lunch," everyone will indeed rise.
— Barbara Schuler
WHEN | WHERE Through Nov. 11, St. Ann’s Warehouse, 45 Water St., Brooklyn
INFO From $71; 866-811-4111, stannswarehouse.org