Wednesday, April 10, 2019

208 (2018-2019): OKLAHOMA! (seen April 9, 2019)

“Not OK”

(Note: this review is followed by the entry on Oklahoma! from my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1940-1950. Those interested in a plot summary will find one there.)

This isn't a conventional review but I thought it a good opportunity to offer some personal remarks about Oklahoma!

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s groundbreaking musical Oklahoma! first appeared on Broadway when I was three, its music quickly becoming a staple on my family’s record player. I grew up loving the music, the lyrics, the story, the characters, the cowboy atmosphere, and the voices of its original stars, especially Alfred Drake as Curly, Joan Roberts as Laurey, and Celeste Holm as Ado Annie.

I didn’t see it performed, though, until 1955, when Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones, and Gloria Grahame played those roles in the movie. A few years later, we did it when I was a theatre student at Brooklyn College, where my good friend, Larry Strickler, still going strong, played Curly.

Brooklyn College had its own connection to the show, in fact, since Alfred Drake, who became a major theatre star after Oklahoma! (he passed in 1992), had been a student there in the 1930s, something in which I took enormous pride. With that in mind, about 20 years ago, when I headed the Brooklyn College Theatre Department, I created the Alfred Drake Award for distinguished service to the American theatre. For its first recipient, I chose Celeste Holm.

Part of the proceedings included listening to a recording of Drake singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin',” as I introduced Ms. Holm, who showed up in a gorgeous pink coat, after which we played her singing “I Cain’t Say No.” Afterward, accompanied by my friend Mimi Turque, I drove her to her apartment house on Central Park West, making it one of the grandest nights of my life.

So my excitement at seeing the latest revival of Oklahoma!, directed by Daniel Fish, which I wasn’t able to attend when it premiered last year at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, was intense. As usual, I deliberately avoided reading the reviews but couldn’t help being aware of the numerous kudos the show had received from critics who’d already seen it. To date, out of 23 reviews on Show-Score, eight (including the Times) have given it a 95 and one a 90.

I also knew that there were, as always, a small number of outliers who were modestly underwhelmed, with an even smaller number negative enough to fail it. In no way did I think I could possibly end up feeling in any way similar. Friends, I did. (My wife even more so.)

Still, even though I spotted several abandoned seats after the first act, I thought we were an anomaly. Afterward, as I left the Circle in the Square, however, I passed a klatch of female critic acquaintances huddled together and talking excitedly as if something remarkable had just occurred. Seeing me, they looked up, anxious for my on-the-spot opinion. Not knowing their own responses and realizing I could be stepping on a hornet’s nest I answered honestly: “Travesty.” Bang! They erupted in celebration as if I’d just validated everything they’d been saying.

It had taken a while, though, for my feelings to coalesce.

If you’re familiar with the Circle in the Square you’ll be surprised, positively at first, to walk into such a bright space (designed by Laura Jellinek). Scott Zielenski’s lights glow on near-white, plywood-covered walls, white audience carpeting, and the venue’s familiar U-shaped acting area, also covered in pale plywood. Shiny red streamers hang from the ceiling and the surrounding walls are covered with a veritable arsenal of rifles in well-stocked gun-racks.

Lining the inner perimeter of the U are long, white, picnic tables, which serve as row A for audience seating. On each are red, electric pots with signs warning that they’re hot. At the U’s open space is a high wall on which a faint landscape can be seen; doorways are built into it for entrances and exits. The seven-member orchestra sits in a slight depression near the curve of the U, dressed, like the actors, in modern Western gear provided by costumer Terese Wadden.
Damon Daunno. Photo: Little Fang Photo.
Old musicals often need upgrading in one form or another to make them as appealing to modern audiences as they were when they were new. It’s all a matter of degree and sensitivity to the tastes of traditionalists and those seeking relevance to their own lives and times. So the novel look of the space suggests something really different with, hopefully, an excitingly new take on something we take for granted.

It isn't long before you realize that Fish’s production isn't using locale-defining scenery; that the lights are staying on most of the time, illuminating the audience as well as the show; that the cast of 12 is considerably smaller than most Oklahoma! productions, whose original company had 23 performers; that the actors are watching from the sidelines even when not in a scene; that there's some unconventional casting, including wheelchair-bound Ali Stroker as Ado Annie; and that Daniel Kluger’s musical arrangements are, to put it mildly, on the eccentric side.
Ali Stroker, James Davis. Photo: Little Fang Photo.
For a time, all is well and good, even when Curly (Damon Daunno), accompanying himself on the guitar, opens the show by abandoning the soaringly lyrical beauty of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” for a Country Western sound, even adding a twang and a few yodels. By the time the two hour and 45-minute show is over, you’ll either be frustrated to the point of anger or expounding, like the man behind me during the intermission, that “This is the most exciting thing I’ve seen this year.”

So, without going into excruciating detail about every annoying “innovation,” let me simply recall a few things that struck flat notes for me. Yes, the lights remain on, mostly; in fact, this Oklahoma! sometimes feels like Bertolt Brecht directed it to explore its darker, subterranean themes by exposing them for us to closely observe and contemplate with the aid of experimental techniques, even at the expense of vigorous pacing, crowd-pleasing dancing, and glorious music.
Ali Stroker, Will Brill. Photo: Little Fang Photo.

At times, though, the lighting becomes dreamlike to imply inner thoughts, or even goes completely dark for entire scenes, like the one in Jud Fry’s (Patrick Vaill) smokehouse with Curly, where we hear the dialogue spoken into a handheld mic. Yes, this is yet another avant-garde production using mics, providing significant amplification, to suddenly shift the tone and remind us this is theatre, not reality. Several songs also use this clichéd device.

Similarly, and again mainly for shock value, the large wall several times becomes a screen for black and white video images, including an eyeball to eyeball confrontation between Jud and Curly, allowing us to see the tears forming in the actors’ eyes. It also figures heavily in what may be the production’s most shockingly outré contribution, the dream ballet.
Mallory Portnoy, Damon Daunno. Photo: Little Fang Photo.
This is not a dance-inflected production—the best routine is the hoedown to “The Farmer and the Cowman” at the box social. The most famous choreographic number, Laurey and Curly’s “Out of My Dreams” ballet, has been scrapped in favor of something indescribably bizarre. I’m referring to choreographer John Heginbotham’s crazed terpsichorean nightmare in which, following a heavy shower of cowboy boots falling from the rafters, dancer Gabrielle Hamilton, wearing a shiny, white, vinyl-like, mini-nightdress on which the words DREAM BABY DREAM are emblazoned, runs acrobatically amok about the large space.
Gabrielle Hamilton. Photo: Little Fang Photo.
Her manic tour de force, accompanied by an aggressively hallucinatory arrangement, comes off as unleashed and ugly meaninglessness, perhaps intended to signify Laurey’s sexual confusion. Since the shaved-headed Hamilton, aside from being black, bears absolutely no resemblance to the thick-tressed Rebecca Naomi Williams, who plays Laurey, I can’t imagine what those who don’t know Oklahoma! could possibly make of this hard-to-watch segment.
Patrick Vaill, Damon Daunno. Photo: Little Fang Photo.
I think I’ve made my point, so it’s probably not necessary to comment on the singing, none of which—as constrained by directorial imperatives—more than briefly captures the beauty or integrity of the score (when it isn’t damaging it); the annoyingly hysterical laughing of Gertie Cummings (Mallory Portnoy), the third romantic female role; the sluggishly serious pace; or the conversion of Aunt Eller (Mary Testa) into a bellicose loudmouth.
Damon Daunno, Mary Testa. Photo: Little Fang Photo.
Still, I can’t resist noting the truly weird and unjustified staging of the climax when Curly, using a pistol, kills Jud (who traditionally dies by falling on his knife), and the equally strange way in which the dialogue has been organized to resolve it. I won’t describe the bloody scene in detail but, if you can imagine what would it would look like if Carrie met Curly and Laurey, you’d have a glimpse of what I’m getting at.
Rebecca Naomi Jones, Damon Daunno. Photo: Little Fang Photo.
I should, before concluding, mention that the audience is invited to the stage floor during the intermission for a treat of chili and cornbread. For some, it's the only nourishment the show provides.

The closing line of the great song that gives the show its title ends, of course, with “You’re doing fine Oklahoma! Oklahoma, okay.” For this viewer, though, Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! isn't doing fine at all, and it’s certainly not OK.

Circle in the Square
1633 Broadway, NYC
Through September 1

The following is an abbreviated essay on Oklahoma! from my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1940-1950.

Oklahoma! Book/lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II; Music: Richard Rodgers; Source: Linn Rigg’s play, Green Grow the Lilacs; Director: Rouben Mamoulian; Choreography: Agnes de Mille; Scenery: Lemuel Ayers; Costumes: Miles White; Producer: Theatre Guild; Theatre: St. James Theatre; opening: March 31, 1943; performances: 2,248.

One of the most popular and influential musicals of all time, Oklahoma! marked the beginning of the brilliant musical theatre partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein, formed when Rodgers broke up his previous partnership with Lorenz Hart (who would die later the same year). The show came at a time when the venerable Theatre Guild was nearly broke (it had only $30,000 in its coffers) after having produced too few hits in its last several seasons.

Guild leader Theresa Helburn conceived the notion of turning Lynn Riggs’s 1931 folk play, Green Grow the Lilacs, into a musical and the idea appealed to Rodgers, who was given permission by the ailing Hart to seek another collaborator. Hammerstein, who was selected, had himself been interested for some time in making a musical out of Riggs’s play (with Jerome Kern) and even brought his idea to Helburn only to learn that she had already spoken about such a work with Rodgers.

Alfred Drake was cast as Curly and Joan Roberts as Laurey, and the participated in the fund-raising efforts for the show, but this was an arduous process because few people thought it a sound investment.

Oklahoma! was a milestone work, advancing the technique established by such earlier shows as the Princess Theatre musicals and Show Boat of integrating all its effects and tying the music, songs, and dances to a distinctive and adult story told intelligently, with consistency, and with fully developed characters. Extremely important was the psychological nature of the fundamental conflict. Nothing was allowed to detract from the overall harmony of effect or to hinder the progress of the action. It was selected as one of Burns Mantle’s 10 Best Plays of the Year.

The show opened in New Haven, CT, in March 1943, under the title Away We Go! and was subsequently called Swing Your Lady, Cherokee Strip, and Yessiree before Oklahoma! was settled on. Some who saw it out of town felt that it was a certain flop. An informant of columnist Walter Winchell wired him the following: “NO GIRLS, NO LEGS, NO JOKES, NO CHANCE.” Broadway jokesters referred to it as “Helburn’s Folly.” When it opened in New York, though, many reviewers were aware that they were viewing a masterpiece, although a few took some convincing.

The show ran for over five years; its national company was on the road for 10 and a half. It was produced internationally, its London version snaring 1,548 performances. The Guild’s finances were restored to robust health, and the show’s individual investors were richly rewarded. A decade after the show opened, the Guild had earned more than $5 million on an $83,000 gamble. Investors putting $10,000 in the show earned back $250,000 within five years. Its long run made it the champion in this category for fifteen years. Each of the original players was succeeded by a string of others.

The story, which closely follows that of Riggs’s play, is set in Indian Territory early in the 20th century. Curly is a handsome young ranch hand in love with Laurey, who lives with Aunt Eller (Betty Garde) on the latter’s farm. He wants to take her to the box social, although he has to admit he doesn’t own a surrey with the fringe on top.

Will Parker (Lee Dixon; the character isn’t in the original play) arrives back from an exciting trip to Kansas City, MO. The fifty dollars he has won in a steer-roping contest will allow him to marry Ado Annie (Celeste Holm). Annie, however, is torn between her attraction to Will and to the Persian peddler, Ali Hakim (Joseph Buloff), whose invitation to go to a hotel with him she has mistaken for a proposal of marriage.

Curly learns that among his rivals for Laurey is the unpleasant farm hand Jud Fry (Howard da Silva), whom Laurey has agreed to have drive her to the box social. Curly decides to take the attractive Gertie Cummings (Jane Lawrence) to the party instead, which upsets Laurey.

Annie’s shotgun-toting father (Ralph Riggs) scares Ali into proposing for real.

The jealous Curly goes to Jud’s smokehouse, which is adorned with pictures of naked women, to tell him to stay clear of Laurey. When Jud breaks through Curly’s roundabout way of offering him advice, he grows angry. After Laurey’s friends express surprise at her seeming preference for Jud, she lapses into a dream that is enacted as a ballet (with Marc Platt as Curly and Katharine Sergava as Laurey). The dream, in which Jud bests Curly in a fight and carries her off, makes her realize that Jud isn’t for her.

Soon, the box social is given, with Jud and Curly bidding to buy Laurey’s box supper, Curly having to sell his gun and horse to win the bidding. Ado and Will have meanwhile agreed to marry and have set the date. Jud makes advances to Laurey but her rejection angers him. Shortly after Curly and Laurey agree to wed, Jud returns and fight breaks out between the two men; Jud dies on the blade of his own knife. Curly is acquitted by a judge who is present and Curly and Laurey depart in a surrey with the fringe on top.

Beautifully interwoven with the story are such now-standard songs as “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “the Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “Kansas City,” “I Cain’t Say No,” “Many a New Day,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “Pore Jud is Daid,” “Out of My Dreams,” “The Farmer and the Cowman,” “All Er Nuthin!,” and “Oklahoma!” Lewis Nichols of the Times dubbed the work a “folk operetta” and suggested that Oklahoma grab the title tune for its state anthem; it eventually did.

The critics praised the variety and excellence of the songs, the expert integration of music, comedy, and drama, the cleverness and emotional depth of de Mille’s choreography, the intelligence of the book and lyrics (although Louis Kronenberger of PM referred to the book as “just one of those things”), the excellence of the costumes, and the superiority of the players and direction.

Speaking of DeMille’s work, Rosamond Gilder of Theatre Arts Monthly noted how she demonstrated that “a dance can be comic, gaily satiric as well as lyric and robust. Miss de Mille’s dances do not interrupt the action with an arbitrary restatement of a lyric theme in terms of movement, but on the contrary they move the plot forward, enlarging its scope.” The show’s famous dream sequence Gilder describes as follows: “Its bevies of awkward farm girls and long-limbed horsemen astride imaginary broncos sweep the stage with gusts of merriment; they are the essence, the embodied spirit of the hearty girls and boys whose vigorous measures enliven the other scenes of the play.”

George Jean Nathan, in Theatre Book of the Year, found it difficult to say more about the show than that it “constitutes agreeable entertainment,” but most critics were lavish with their superlatives. There was abundant praise for all the principals, several of whom became major stars on the basis of this show. Alfred Drake, said George Freedley of the New York Morning Telegraph, “has the makings of a new star. He has acting ability far above the average, looks, personality and a beautiful and flexible voice. His acting and singing of the cowboy lover goes a long way towards making the play a success.”

Burton Rascoe of the New York World-Telegram was bowled over by Holm, who “simply tucked the show under her arm and just let the others touch it. This is an astounding young woman, Miss Holm. . . . When you see and hear her sing the rather naughty song, ‘I Can’t [sic] Say No,’ you are in for a tickling thrill. And you just wait for her next number. . . . Miss Holm, with her fresh beauty, has too much talent to be quite credible.”