By Tom Gliatto
April 07, 2019 at 09:00 PM EDT
Little Fang Photo

The title number of Oklahoma! is a rousing, open-hearted vision of agrarian bliss, celebrating a land where the wind comes sweeping down the plain and the waving wheat sure smells sweet. In the stunning Broadway revival that opened Sunday, though, it’s sung with rancid, lip-snarled fury by a man in a blood-spattered white suit. He looks like he just came from the Kill Bill wedding.

This radical new production, which had a short, sold-out run in Brooklyn last fall, probably won’t please anyone who wants to savor the pure honey of that great Rodgers and Hammerstein score, first heard in 1943. For that matter, anyone who just wants to sit back and enjoy a production that pops every kernel of Oklahoma!’s Americana corn may feel as if he or she just swallowed a horsefly.

Directed by Daniel Fish, the new Oklahoma! is wild — a crazily experimental theatrical experience. At the very least, you may find yourself asking: Why are boots falling singly from the sky? Why are several stretches of dialogue played with all the theater’s lights out? Why do the womenfolk shuck corn with big, furious twists of their hands, as if they imagined breaking the necks of the menfolk? And why is Agnes de Mille’s famous ballet reduced to one panting dancer in a “Dream Baby Dream” T-shirt, running through a cloud of fog to the blaring accompaniment of an electric guitar? All good questions! I have no answers!

But this revival of Oklahoma! happens to be terrific fun, too, and much preferable to last year’s stiff-jointed Carousel. The score has been reworked for an on-stage band that performs the musical’s parade of hits — from “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” to “Kansas City” — in swift, light-fingered country styles: bluegrass, folk, even a little Texas swing. And no other Broadway musical is offering free chili and cornbread at intermission.

In fact, the long first act — which is mostly about setting up the rivalry between cowboy Curly (Damon Daunno) and farmhand Jud (Patrick Vaill), both eager for the hand of Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones) — suggests we’ve arrived at the start of some sort of Rodgers and Hammerstein tailgate party.

Although the original takes place just before Oklahoma was granted statehood in 1907, the performance space at the Circle in the Square has been transformed into what feels like a modern community hall, with spangled holiday trim hanging from the rafters and long folding tables holding crock pots and portable coolers. (More ominously, rifles are racked on the walls.) The ensemble’s interactions are casual, loose, wiry, and scrappy, with an energetic sense of anticipation, and their singing, while full-throated, can also be raw, as if from hollerin’ happily from one side of the stage to the other.

By the end, though, the tailgate party starts to feel more like Hillbilly Elegy. Curly will have got his Laurey to the altar, of course — that’s the anticipation that hums in the air, just beneath the spangled trim — but he’ll also be the one who’s got all that blood on his suit. It’s a bit as if Colonel von Trapp surrendered his children to the Nazis after they’d finished singing “Edelweiss” at the end of The Sound of Music.

But when director Fish’s inventively eccentric notions and Rodger and Hammerstein’s confident showmanship completely fuse, you stop fretting about incongruities — the effect is magical. This happens at least twice. The first is with “I Cain’t Say No,” Ado Annie’s frisky, playful confession of sexual desire. Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair, sings it with a yelping country twang that makes you wish Spotify offered a Dolly Parton cover.

The other flat-out high point yolks the show’s most potently strange idea to the score’s strangest and least likable song. That would be “Pore Jud Is Daid,” Curly’s sarcastically maudlin meditation about the unloved farmhand — who, in this production, is treated with a misunderstanding and contempt that place him a few rungs below the Elephant Man. While Curly sings and slings his insults, actor Vaill is being filmed and his closeup projected onto a wall: Tears of hurt and self-pity trickle out of his eyes and down his sallow cheeks. It’s like watching Harry Dean Stanton have a nervous breakdown.

In the end, the reaction of an old-school Oklahoma! fan probably won’t depend so much on the production’s crazy theatrical derring or the quality of the cast (I thought they were all flawless). The sticking point will be Fish’s determination to mine these prairie dwellers for a sense of unease, malaise, or even psychosis — things that may be indicated in the original script, but aren’t reflected in the charming music that allows them to bare their souls. Jones’ Laurey isn’t just wary of Jud’s attentions, but quietly on-edge and anxious. Vaill’s Jud isn’t just a creep, he’s a stalker, a sociopath, a troll before the arrival of social media. And Daunno’s Curly, gangly and reedy, seems uncomfortable in his own skin, and maybe in his own chaps — his bow-legged swagger is meant as a kind of masculine turf-marker, but he doesn’t look like a man who’d sit tall in the saddle. Corn that’s as high as an elephant’s eye might spook him.

And yet these are the characters who’ll sing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” and “Out of My Dreams.” Those are ever-blooming bouquets from the American songbook, not admissions of neurotic vulnerability. In other words, this is an Oklahoma! that thrives on a creative tension or dissonance that may not be resolvable. You’ve just got to be okay with that. A

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