Review: ‘Oklahoma!’ at Circle in the Square Theater

By Jonathan Spira on 11 September 2019
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Based on a 1931 play by Lynn Riggs, the 1943 musical “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!” returned to Broadway not as your father’s or grandfather’s “Oklahoma!” Rather, this production should be thought of as “Oklahoma! (Unplugged).”

Daniel Fish’s revival, the fifth since the show’s 1943 opening, is about as far away from the original as the Circle in the Square Theater is from Claremore, Indian Territory, in 1906.

Meanwhile, on the sweeping prairies of the Oklahoma territory, poised on the verge of statehood, there’s a bright golden haze visible on the meadow, although it’s a bit more edgy now.

The New York Times opening night review of “Oklahoma!” in 1943 noted that the show had been hailed as “delightful,” but in the unplugged version of “Oklahoma!”, the unvarnished version of the original flawed settlers is readily apparent. The lush orchestrations are gone, as is the set in which the sky seems to stretch into infinity.

It’s a beautiful morning and the sun is shining bright, but this is a dark “Oklahoma!,” one set in a community center with chili and cornbread waiting on tables to be served to the audience – which by their very presence in the intimate hall becomes part of the community – during the intermission.

There’s an element of danger here in the hall, festooned with colored lights, banners, and of course fringe, although it’s not just the several dozen guns mounted on the walls in Laura Jellinek’s first-rate set.  It’s bright here, too – Scott Zielinski is the lighting designer – and the house lights stay on the maximum setting for much of the show, until it’s pitch black.

The quaint costumes of Oklahomas’ past are gone, replaced by denim although I would wager that the Oklahomans of 1906 would have called them dungarees.

When Curly McLain, a cowboy in tight jeans who is in love with Laurey, begins to sing the opening line of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” with only a guitar held close to his chest, a stillness in the audience emerges.  Minus the 26 pit players, the raw sexual energy exuded by Damon Daunno is sizzling.

Not only is the band smaller – the on-stage ensemble looks like it could have been a group of seven that uses the community hall to practice – but the cast has been pared down to 11 including our star-crossed lovers Curly and Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones); Laurey’s Aunt Eller (Mary Testa); Jud Fry, Aunt Eller’s hired hand and pillar of the community, whose loner tendencies would mark him as most likely to shoot up his high school in today’s world; town locals Ado Annie Carnes (Ali Stroker) and Will Parker (James Davis); and the itinerant Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Will Brill). (What hasn’t been cut in any significant way is the script, which remains faithful to the original.)

With her strong voice and stage presence, Ali Stroker presents an Ado Annie the likes of which audiences have not seen before, and Stroker became the first actress in a wheelchair to win the Tony Award for best featured actress in a musical.

Of course, “Oklahoma!” almost wasn’t “Oklahoma!”  In out-of-town tryouts in the 1940s in New Haven and Boston, it was “Away We Go!”  The decision to add the show-stopping final number, “Oklahoma!” and to retitle the musical after that number is legend, and the rest became history.


‘Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma’

Limited engagement through January 20, 2020

Circle in the Square Theater

1633 Broadway (on 50th St.)

New York, N.Y. 10019

Running time: 2 hrs. 45 min.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

Accura News

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