FOLLOW-UP: More Thoughts on Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!

Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno in Daniel Fish’s production of Oklahoma!

A month ago, I saw Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! At the time, I wrote about it at some length for Parterre Box—but I continue to think about it. That’s surprisingly rare for me, since I see so many things in a short time that I tend to move on. But this one continues to stick in my brain, and in addition, friends who have also seen Oklahoma! have asked me good questions about individual moments in the show that I didn’t discuss in my first review. So… for those who are interested, I offer a follow-up: specifically, I’ve selected four elements in the show that, for different reasons, strike me as particularly intriguing exemplars of what this production does—and doesn’t—pull off. Here goes…

** The Dream Ballet. The most audacious rethinking in the show, and one that I’m still trying to process. (If you haven’t seen it, this piece in the New York Times will give you a sense of the new choreography by John Heginbotham, as well as the concept.) 

Famously, the original was a stylized but highly pictorial storytelling ballet, in which Laurey tries to decide between Jud and Curly. As seen here, the dance is modernist and internalized, as a black woman in a contemporary t-shirt with the slogan, “Dream Baby Dream,” moves abruptly, even spasmodically, with a sense of purpose that also hints of joyful release. She is largely alone on the stage, and any coherent sense of narrative is gone. But there is a Freudian coup-de-théâtre as cowboy boots drop with a thud from the ceiling to the stage floor. 

The ballet is likely to be a dividing point for audiences. Initially, I found it heavy-handed, but now I’m inclined to think it’s one of the show’s strongest elements. In particular, the falling cowboy boots trope image underscores one of Fish’s sharpest insights in Oklahoma! (it’s always been there; why hadn’t I noticed it?) – that the transition from cowboy to farmer can be perceived simultaneously as a feminizing threat to manhood; or a welcome step to peaceful, domesticating maturity; or even as both. 

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** Lonely Room. This solo song for Jud Fry is often cut for varying reasons. It’s very difficult vocally—to my ear, the most operatic piece in the score—and it’s also a disturbing window into the character’s inner life. For both those reasons, it’s probably my favorite moment in Oklahoma!. When it works right, the audience is put in a compromising position—it’s a star turn that we want to applaud, and it also humanizes and gives stature to a character about whom we feel, at best, deeply ambivalent. That Rodgers and Hammerstein would give the biggest vocal challenge to the darkest character is pretty fascinating.  

Here, frankly, it’s the biggest disappointment in the show. Actor Patrick Vaill, a riveting and multifaceted Jud in his scenes, is, to put it generously, a so-so singer, and “Lonely Room,” rather than the climax of his performance, dilutes the moment. 

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** The Final Scene. Without giving too much away, I’ll simply say that the somewhat ambiguous death of a central character throws a shadow on our sense of community. Accompanying this as a finale is the show’s title song, which for most of us has embodied a sense of optimism and possibility. This, too, is a coup-de-théâtre, but I don’t find it wholly effective. Fish’s handprints are too obviously all over it, and Laurey in particular is required to act in a way that makes little sense in this context. To me, this is a good example of a theatrical idea that sounds great in theory but doesn’t work in practice.

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** Gertie Cummings. For me, some of the best elements of Fish’s production involve illuminating small details in Oklahoma! that have always been there, but take on vivid new life. Here’s one—Gertie Cummings is a minor character—Laurey’s rival for Curly’s attentions—whom you might very well have hardly noticed in previous productions. She’s more talked about than actually present, and really the only thing we learn about her is she has an annoying laugh. But here, part of the concept involves having people who aren’t actively involved in the scenes often lurking at tables surrounding the action—it’s a community, remember? And Gertie—given a vivid presence by actress Mallory Portnoy—suddenly becomes a force to be reckoned with. 

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I’m sure there are more, but I’ll stop here. Some misses, but mostly hits. But what strikes me most is I’ve now written probably 2,000 words on this Oklahoma!, and still feel there’s more to say. I can’t even remember the last time I felt that way about a Broadway show. 

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