WHERE Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway
INFO From $69.50; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com
BOTTOM LINE Rethinking the classic with an eye to the darkness that’s always lurked under the surface.
In his radical rethinking of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, “Oklahoma!,” director Daniel Fish changes not a word of the original.
The gritty, hard-hitting Bard Summerscape production at Broadway’s Circle in the Square (after last fall’s sold-out run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn) presents a darker, more violent vision of life in a territory on its way to statehood.
In part that comes from eliminating the extraneous, starting with the ensemble. Twelve terrific actors carry a show that normally has twice the cast. The orchestra, too, is pared down to just seven, playing old school instruments like banjos and mandolins, a band randomly come together for a turn-of-the-20th-century barn dance. Which is exactly the point: The theater has the bright glare of a country social hall ready for a party, with Laura Jellinek’s set strung with colorful banners and the front-row tables lined with red pots of chili to be served at intermission.
But it’s the intention rather than setting that truly defines this “Oklahoma!” The songs, especially those sung by Damon Daunno playing the lovelorn cowpoke Curly, come with an intense underbelly of aggression. When he sings “everything’s goin’ my way” in the opening “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” there’s foreboding, a sense that he might not be right.
It’s an entirely different intensity you get from Ali Stroker as Ado Annie, a highly charged young woman whose electric “I Can’t Say No” makes no apologies for her obvious appetites. That she’s in a wheelchair only adds to her allure, especially when she whirls and wheelies her way around a square dance. Fine performances, too, come from Rebecca Naomi Jones as farm girl Laurey, Mary Testa as her wise Aunt Eller and Patrick Vaill as the incendiary, though more sympathetic than usual hired hand Jud Fry. And brava to Gabrielle Hamilton, who dances an emotional solo dream (nightmare might be a better word) ballet, a far cry from the iconic Agnes de Mille choreography.
This is not a piece of theater that allows you to sit back and be entertained. Fish demands almost as much from the people in the audience as he does from his cast, forcing them to really listen for lines delivered in near whispers, or reorient when the show is plunged into total blackness. Always a threat of violence lurks. “Country is changing, got to change with it,” Curly says, not long before the rousing title song ends the show. But from the driven, verging on angry way it’s sung, the message is clear. That change will come at a price.