“I think like a lot of people I thought I knew the show ... and when I started to work on it I discovered there was more there than I previously knew,” director Daniel Fish told Playbill on the April 7 opening night red carpet of his new Broadway revival of Oklahoma!.
The production, which began at Bard College before graduating to its summer theatre festival Bard Summerscape and, subsequently, Off-Broadway’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, is a minimalist production—stripping the previous casts of over 30 down to an even dozen and placing the actors in a fully lit plywood community house-meets-barn setting at the Circle in the Square Theatre. Every word is as it was when Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the show in the early 1940s, but Fish’s close examination of the text rings with fresh, dark meaning, pulsing with sexuality and intentional ambiguities.
“What's so cool about it is to hear it now in 2019 and realize that so many of these themes and so many of these songs are relevant today,” said Ali Stroker who made her Broadway debut in the recent Spring Awakening revival and plays Ado Annie in this production. “As a piece of art it’s important to revive and see where we have progressed and where we are the same.” In today’s new wave of intersectional feminism, Ado Annie reads as a welcome sex-positive character. “She has such energy and excitement for life but it hits me different doing this show now.”
Rebecca Naomi Jones’ Laurey is also quite different. In previous productions, her choice between farmhand Jud and cowman Curly never seemed like much of a choice—more a way to make Curly jealous; here, there’s an actual choice to make. “Jud is someone who is a worthy human being who likely has some mental health issues and some melancholy, some depression. I think maybe there's something in that that Laurey understands and sees in a kindred spirit kind of way. I think both of these souls are wrestling with things in themselves and within their society that they know don't feel quite right. So I think in our version I have this attraction to this person that I have this connection with that I can't control and I can't make sense of,” she says. “Then along with that there is this person that I have been destined to be with from childhood who I do also have this attraction with and this love for and I ultimately know I have to find my way to being with this person, but it's a struggle.
“The thing that I love so much about Laurey in the writing is that she's got so much strength to her,” says Jones. “There's a lot in the text about her questioning her own discoveries in her own sexuality and what she wants.”
Curly is also more vulnerable than before, now in the hands of Damon Daunno. “With any amount of self-assuredness or arrogance, it's definitely the yin and a yang. There's definitely major insecurity and major vulnerability. People don't really behave that way or say those things if they didn't actually need somebody believe it because they may not believe it themselves,” he says. “I think he's incredibly vulnerable with how he feels about Laurey and feels incredibly threatened by Jud but has to maintain his machismo.”
But Fish’s production also pushes the rivalry between Jud and Curly to new places. “There's no denying that there's physical chemistry there as well between Curly and Jud. We definitely lean into that,” says Daunno. “We used to refer to [‘Pore Jud’] as the kissing scene because we get so close to each other.”
Playbill also spoke with Patrick Vaill who plays Jud Fry, James Davis who plays Will Parker, Mary Tests who plays Aunt Eller, Will Brill who plays Ali Hakim, lead dancer Gabrielle Hamilton, and ensemblist Anthony Cason—all of whom shed new light on the story of the U.S. territory on the verge of statehood and have been with the production since Off-Broadway.
“The show is very much the show that it was at St Ann’s,” Fish says. “I think it’s gotten deeper; I think the performances have all gotten stronger; I think the singing’s gotten better and we made a few changes in the dream ballet for Circle in the Square that I really like.”
As Daunno put it: “We're trying to offer a lot.”