Come away death

There’s no doubt in my mind what the strangest thing I’ve ever seen on Broadway is: It’s the current revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!

Some of you, reading this, are understandably scratching your heads right now. Just about the least strange thing that could possibly be would be yet another mounting of the much-produced 76-year-old classic. Oklahoma! – as I often explain – set the template; that is, the bunch of conventions that, to a fair extent, all Golden Age musicals conformed to. We fans of musicals have all seen this rousing love letter to the pioneer spirit countless times. And it’s always the same.

So why do it that way again?

Director Daniel Fish, without altering a line of text, has re-imagined the familiar classic as a meditation on America’s addiction to firearms. As you enter the barn (for that’s what The Circle in the Square has been transformed into), you pass rows and rows of rifle racks. And this was – excuse the pun – triggering to me. After moving, for the first time, to a place where people keep guns in their homes, my wife asked about the practice on a community on-line message board, and was met with hostility. One miscreant posted a picture of about 100 rifles on a garage wall. I’ve always kept this blog a politics-free zone, so I’m just sayin’ this particular Oklahoma! explores the tragedy of our violent past and present.

In saying my mind was blown, I’m not reaching for a pun. Fish’s staging gets you thinking. Practically everything that happens in the play leads to new revelations. About race. About so-called “disability.” About the fine lines between a social outcast and a true creep. About the circumstances that lead to shootings. About injustice and misjudgments. And about one of my favorite topics (as those who’ve seen The Christmas Bride know), the times when people sing happy songs at unhappy people in an effort to force cheer.

I’d heard about this production’s earlier incarnations at Bard College and, more recently, a Brooklyn church. I knew I was in for a radical interpretation, and was ready to enjoy this Fish feast with two caveats: the text, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, needed to be respected, and, as always, I needed to feel something. Boy, did I feel. I was emotionally drained, totally caught up in the tragedy of what, on paper, looks like a happy ending. In the weeks since seeing it, I’ve hardly let it go. The events turn over in my head and the stun of it all has barely dissipated.

People disagree about what respect for Rodgers and Hammerstein means. During the dark days of World War II, when audiences needed to feel good, the masters didn’t produce a cautionary tale about the violence of the Wild West. Originally, civilizing forces, taming the Wild West, prove the Oklahoma territory worthy of inclusion as a brand new state. Much time is spent on a trial in which minor characters make a concerted effort to follow the letter of the law. A lass who lacks the monogamy gene is reformed, readied for marriage. A libertine traveling salesman is saddled with a wife.

Fish upends our expectations of Oklahoma! in a host of fascinating ways. There’s a contemporary bluegrass band, mostly female players. In 1943, those slide guitars we’re so used to from country music didn’t exist. So, does doing it this way denigrate Rodgers? It ignores orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett, and if you care about a thing like that, stay away. The Hammerstein words get new interpretations by admirably committed actors. One glare one character gives another was particularly devastating to me. I think the authors are being honored, here: a small company of performers are taking every word seriously. And, suddenly, old Oklahoma! is the talk of Broadway.

One disappointment is the lack of a narrative ballet. Think of how 1940s audiences must have reacted to Agnes DeMille’s long dance sequence, entitled Laurey Makes Up Her Mind. Here’s a virginal ingénue who’s bought a hallucinogenic drug from a shady peddler. She sniffs it, and we see what she dreams, and what she dreams is far from her prairie experience. There are the high-kicking French postcard girls in black stockings; there’s the rivals for her affection facing off in a duel. Like much of mid-century theatre, this owes a lot to Freud, the id as rendered by Terpsichore. Heady stuff.

When we come back from eating our chili and cornbread at intermission, we expect some movement to tell us what’s on Laurey’s mind, but do we really need to know? There’s nothing novel, any more, in pointing out the sexual underpinning of a woman’s attraction. So John Heginbotham’s choreography gives us something unexpected, to blaring pre-recorded electric guitars, distortion and all. A little of this goes a long way and I only wish it was only a little of this. It was a lot, too long, too meaningless; a big flaw in the diamond.

And while we’re on negatives, I had some problems with the singing abilities of the two leads. Let’s face it: that’s a strange thing to say. It’s a Rodgers and Hammerstein show and the voices were less than top-notch; how could that be good? The answer becomes a question: Did I attend this thing in order to hear People Will Say We’re In Love sweetly sung? Broadway has seen five previous productions that served up that. This is a very different experience.

Generally, folks who care about dulcet tones gravitate towards the opera house. They’re OK with glorious vocals even if their minds are not engaged. I’m not trying to sound superior, here, but I prefer to think. Your run-of-the-mill revival of Oklahoma! is unlikely to affect your intellect, to stick with you weeks afterward, to stir your compassion and, in my case, a revulsion of lethal weapons. But this is something else, an extraordinary reconsideration that surprises and shocks in many a new way (pun intended).

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