GNH Lumber February 2024

THEATER REVIEW: Up to date ‘Oklahoma!’ goes way too far


Luma Theater, Bard College/  “Oklahoma!”

This “Oklahoma!” is raw. Almost everything about it is raw.

The room in which it takes place is raw (scenic designer, Laura Jellinek). It’s a giant raw rectangle (yes, this is theater-in-the-rectangle), with unpainted plywood walls and a huge performing platform of the same unfinished material. Bordering the performing space are long, skinny plywood tables with raw, white, diner-style surfaces on which the audience at intermission is served indifferent chili, diner cornbread, and lemonade. The cast also uses the tables for sitting and an occasional run, featuring well-timed leaps over the crockpots.

The lighting (by Scott Zielinski) is raw, very white, relentless, and unforgiving. There are occasional exceptions to the whiteness, one of which is utter blackness. (“Good lookin’ rope ya got there,” Curly says implausibly in the black.) And out of the blackness emerges four humongous projections on two walls. It’s Jud and Curly doing the ominous smokehouse scene–times four.

To watch a play, this audience person prefers to luxuriate in a cozy blanket of darkness. (Don’t shine your white light on me, Zielinski. Light is for actors.) In fact, audience connection and involvement, which, I suppose, the light is meant to encourage, is an overrated conceit. The theater-goer who wants to be in the play should go audition.

The dancing (by John Heginbotham) is raw. The original choreography by Agnes DeMille seemed a quite daring and “modern” departure from ballet and Broadway traditions. This dancing, however, deliberately stomps away any and all finesse from the movements. No Frenchified, effeminate, tiptoeing around here! Give this stingy Oklahoma earth the beating it deserves!

The costumes (by Terese Wadden) are raw. Though Ado Annie is fetching with her long legs stretching out of very generously cutoff jeans, the girls’ hoedown costumes are a bold condemnation of all things girly. (Deliberately, one presumes.) They are cruelly unflattering with voluminous short skirts puffed out with stiff crinolines and bodices with rows of ridiculous ruffles. The colors are garish. The men are luckier, dressed like normal twenty-first century, southwestern males. At the end, to wed and murder in, Curly gets a stunning raw white suit.

This is a musical. The music is not raw–most of the time. There is an extraordinary six-piece band that lives in a shallow pit at one end of the room. They get extra-musically involved in a scene now and then, but their principal function is to make marvelous music.

Arranger Daniel Kluger has taken Richard Rodgers’ inspired score, preserved its familiar harmonic palette (mostly), and given it an extraordinary, delightful, witty burst of orchestrations. This group cooks with country, plus choices from Kluger’s quirky, sophisticated ear. That is, for the bulk of the show.

There is an orchestral entr’acte, however. It starts with an electric guitar solo amplified to ear-shattering decibels. “Ear-shattering” is not hyperbole. The sound is aggressive to the point of intent-to-do-bodily-harm. (No one’s ears should be so abused. Sound designer Drew Levy should be arrested—or at least spanked.) The solo merges into a full ensemble exploration of “Oklahoma!” tunes in the style of Charles Ives. It’s not bad. In another context it could function and be enjoyable.

The director, Daniel Fish, has placed the actors in chairs around the periphery of the rectangle—and often left them there for the dialogue. The result is that a lot of the talk must stretch across many linear feet to reach a person. The device may or may not say something about the psychological distance between these humans, but, by contrast, it does make any body-to-body scene feel warmer.

The cast can sing. They prove it in the ensemble numbers, and the director has handled the use of principals-as-chorus skillfully. But in many solo songs, singers (especially the women) hide behind unpleasant and unnecessarily exaggerated character voices.

There’s the thrill of beautiful, trained voices ringing with the title song, “Oklahoma!” and the exquisite “Out of My Dreams,” sung here with lush musicality by Amber Gray as Laurey. Especially be grateful for the brilliant Rodgers’ art song, “Lonely Room,” performed here with art and passion by Patrick Vaill. Vaill, an unexpectedly attractive Jud Fry, uses the song to produce one of the few emotion-grabbing segments of the evening. “People Will Say We’re in Love” one song says, but this people would not have spread the rumor.

The above-mentioned Amber Gray lays a kind of undeserved weariness on Laurey. (Perhaps this is a director’s choice.) Also, the very talented Mary Testa is a poor fit for Aunt Eller; she seems like an urbanite ill at ease in the country. On the other hand, James Patrick Davis as Will Parker is perfection–voice, face, body, intention. Allison Strong as Ado Annie is charming. Benj Mirman as Ali Hakim plays it straight, a surprising and excellent acting choice.

Curly is usually cast as a big-voiced, hunky WASP. Damon Daunno is a male of the cocky, sexy, mustached, loose-limbed variety; and we suddenly see that Curly should always have had most of those qualities—minus the mustache maybe. It works spectacularly in “Surrey with the Fringe On Top” and for kissing. Less so later in the play. (It is merely annoying that Curly sometimes bursts into an inappropriate falsetto. “See how contemporary we are!”)

Is this experimental treatment of an old classic musical successful? Does it accomplish something new? These days, washing away sentimentality is supposed to be the sophisticated thing to do; but humanity can easily get caught in the outflow. I think that happened here.

Except for the excellent band and its joyful arrangements of wonderful songs, this production is quite joyless. Contemporary “innovations” and a light-drenched, chili-eating audience are essentially pasted-on novelties.

So I guess the answer is no. Adding novelty and a raw, modernist sensibility may not be worth what gets lost in the process.

“Oklahoma!” runs through July 19. The box office is at 845 758-7900.

Related Posts