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Theatre in Review: Oklahoma! (Circle in the Square Theatre)/Sincerely, Oscar (Theatre Row)

Top: Damon Daunno, Mary Testa. Photo: Little Fang Photo. Bottom: Doreen Taylor. Photo: Derek Brad

I'm having my own personal Oscar Hammerstein Week, thanks to the opening of two shows featuring his immortal lyrics. While one works far better than the other, it's fun to speculate what he would have made of them.

John Guare didn't know it, but he was a prophet. His 1974 comedy, Rich and Famous, features a theatrical producer, Veronica Gulpp-Vestige, who has become famous for doing, among other classic musicals, "The Sound of Music on a bare stage without the music, the actors all in grey rags, their faces painted the white face of death." Her intention? "To show the bleakness of American joy." Seated in the Circle in the Square the other night, I thought, Well, here we are. While it's true that Daniel Fish's revisionist staging of Oklahoma! doesn't go that far -- the score is present and accounted for -- it is hardly the show that, in its original production, combined "a fresh and infectious gayety, a charm of manner, beautiful acting, singing and dancing," among other delights, according to Lewis Nichols, who reviewed it for The Times. As is well known by now, Fish has staged his version in a giant barn, the walls covered with guns. The actors are dressed in contemporary country wear. And Oklahoma!, which, according to Harold Clurman, was a four-star example of a World War II era musical with which "we appeased our jarred souls with sweet, smiling images of the past," is now a reflection of America in the Trump era: jittery, xenophobic, prone to gunplay.

It has been claimed that Fish's direction is an attempt at getting back to the show's original intentions, and it is true that Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein broke with the conventions of musical theatre in a way that must have been shocking at the time, presenting a sexually conflicted heroine whose problems are aired in a Freudian ballet; a psychopathic villain; and a plot that climaxes in involuntary manslaughter. And, opening at the height of the war, Oklahoma! posed a probing question: What kind of country do we want to be -- a nation of individuals looking out for number one, or a community ruled by laws and caring for others? You may notice that we're still chewing that one over.

All this is by way of saying that Oklahoma! is fair game for artists who wish to reinterpret it, and, for all its austerity, this production has plenty to like. Damon Daunno and Rebecca Naomi Jones invest the warring lovers Curly and Laurey with a volatile chemistry, their casually hostile banter serving as the thinnest of veils over an attraction neither one of them is fully equipped to handle. Ali Stroker is the best Ado Annie I've ever seen, nailing the cheerful, guilt-free promiscuity that scandalizes her friends, family, and beaux, and James Davis' magnificently slow-on-the-uptake Will Parker is her ideal sparring partner. In perhaps the most original stroke of casting, Jud Fry, the menacing farmhand, is not a stocky Rod Steiger (or Shuler Hensley) type, but a lean, psychologically whipped, love-hungry loser played to a menacing turn by Patrick Vaill. Mary Testa's knowing manner and dustbowl-dry delivery make her a fine Aunt Eller. The one newcomer, Will Brill, is an improvement as Ali Hakim, the traveling salesman and professional scalawag who unwittingly finds himself in Ado Annie's clutches, with her father's shotgun aimed at his back. (The production, originally from Bard College, was seen at St. Ann's Warehouse last fall.)

In addition, Daniel Kluger's bluegrass orchestrations and arrangements attractively relocate Rodgers and Hammerstein to the Grand Ole Opry stage, especially when Daunno is applying his high-altitude cowboy tenor to "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" or "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top." (The latter, without ever saying so, is here one of the frankest attempts at seduction imaginable.) Stroker, who uses a wheelchair, spins around the stage with brio, turning "I Cain't Say No" into a rebel yell of sexual freedom; she and Davis partner wittily in "All er Nothin,'" in which Will and Annie struggle to work out an arrangement that allows for both fidelity and flirting. Many of Fish's ideas give certain scenes a fresh attack: The passage in which Curly, preying on Jud's self-pity in the number "Poor Jud is Daid," has always been a little distasteful; staged here in total darkness, with an enormous video image of Jud's face, anxiously soaking up each word, desperate to believe that he is cared for, the scene exposes Curly's cruelty without apology. Many scenes, including the box-lunch auction, in which Curly and Jud do psychological battle for Laurey's hand, simmers with a slow-burning tension.

But, as is usually the case with such so-called reimaginings, there are all the leftover bits that don't quite fit. "It's a Scandal! It's an Outrage!" -- Ali Hakim's lament about his looming marriage to Ado Annie -- is a challenge in any revival, and it feels thoroughly out of place here. Although Agnes DeMille's original "Out of My Dreams" ballet wouldn't be appropriate in this context, it's not at all clear that John Heginbotham's replacement -- a lengthy solo for the dancer Gabrielle Hamilton performed to a distorted electric guitar arrangement -- succeeds at dramatizing Laurey's emotional dilemma. The altered climax, in which Curly gratuitously shoots Jud dead -- in the original, it's an act of self-defense in a knife fight -- is a bridge too far, breaking faith with the original. It is also weirdly staged: Even though Jud stands several feet away, the shot leaves Curly and Laurey (who stands by his side) covered in blood -- rather like Stephen King's Carrie on prom night. And, during the scene that follows, neither of them tries to wipe their faces clean. (They look like they're getting facials for their upcoming wedding night.) Oklahoma! is a long show and Fish's deliberate pacing really begins to be felt in the last thirty minutes or so. And despite her incisive characterization, Jones is vocally overmatched, trying to reach Laurey's high notes and too often failing.

Still, the production plays better in the Circle in the Square than at St. Ann's Warehouse; this is especially true of Drew Levy's vastly improved sound design. <>Laura Jellinek's barn interior includes a mural of the Oklahoma countryside that seems to be an homage to Oliver Smith, who designed the original. (The animated trail of chimney smoke may be an excessively coy touch, however.) Scott Zielinski's lighting ranges from long stretches with the house lights on contrasted with scenes played in blackout. (The first one is effective; the second seems affected, but that was Fish's decision.) Occasionally, the characters go into interior states that are signaled with rather ugly green washes. This is not his most interesting work. Terese Wadden's costumes tend to favor the men -- her flouncy, almost tutu-like dresses for the Act II box social don't do any favors to the ladies -- but they largely feel right in this context.

Still, if this isn't the Oklahoma! of one's dreams, it offers a strong vision that speaks to this moment. And this is, most likely, only the beginning: As long as the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog was under the direct control of their heirs, a carefully patrolled fidelity reigned supreme. (The famous National Theatre's "cosmic" staging of Carousel was about as fer as they could go, as Will Parker might say, and an attempt are reworking Flower Drum Song didn't really work out.) Now that the shows are owned by Imagem Music Group, a more permissive approach has been implemented. (See the gay Oklahoma! staged in Oregon last year.) If this production is any indication, the show can stand such creative pressure.

On the other hand, it's impossible to understand how anyone greenlighted Sincerely, Oscar. A ninety-minute revue consisting of songs featuring lyrics by Hammerstein would seem to be a no-brainer, but in the theatre, trouble lurks around every corner. Here it starts with the visuals: At the beginning -- and every so often after that -- an enormous transparent screen, located at stage center, leans toward the audience at a forty-five degree angle, so that -- using a digital version of the classic Pepper's ghost effect -- we see Hammerstein at work, writing lyrics and opining on his craft. When he says the word "dream," it floats in the air next to him. Then he stands up and vanishes, exploding into a collection of letters that also appear dancing on the seven projection screens placed around Jason Simms' set. We're not even ten minutes in, and the show resembles a commercial for Alpha-Bits.

This astonishingly literal-minded approach continues. During "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," the lyric "When he goes away/That's your rainy day" is accompanied by images of clouds. The next line -- "And when he comes back home again dat day is fine/De sun will shine!" -- leads to a display of, yes, the sun, made up of letters that spell out "sunshine." And so it goes: You'd better believe the chicks and ducks and geese scurry in "Surrey with the Fringe on Top." "Don't throw bouquets at me," the opening words of "People Will Say We're in Love," cues an array of roses. And "Ol' Man River" features images of water, on which passes the word "river" -- in case we mistake it for Lake Ontario or something. The imagery for "The Gentleman is a Dope," featuring now-you-see-them-now-you-don't male silhouettes, looks like the opening credits for a 1960s crime caper film. Brittany Merenda's projection designs are certainly technically accomplished if hilariously wrongheaded. Needless to say, what with the set lumbering around, the holographic Hammerstein expounding on his craft, and all those damn projections, the two-person cast never has a chance. Then again, Doreen Taylor (who also wrote the thing) never met a number she couldn't belt, an approach she employs with the most inappropriate material -- for example, "Getting to Know You." Even so, she remains oddly lacking in personality. Azudi Onyejekwe, her onstage partner, is rather better, thanks to his appealingly soulful voice and offhand manner; then again, I never expected to see "Shall We Dance" performed as a vehicle for jazzy, school-of-Bob Fosse moves.

The song list consists only of approved classics -- almost all of them ballads -- presented in not-unattractive jazz-pop-funk arrangements that mostly seem designed to facilitate Taylor's reach-for-the-rafters vocal style. David Pedemonti's lighting and Robert Balan's sound design are both solid, although, in the latter case, the performers sport enormous mics that look like antennas sprouting from their cheeks. A production design in search of a musical -- somebody should call Veronica Gulpp-Vestige -- Sincerely, Oscar is plagued by ponderous moving scenery, imagery that is comically on the nose, and tedious filler sequences of the digitally rendered Hammerstein, voiced by Bob Meenan My suggestion: Following its Theatre Row load-out, it should move a few blocks down 42nd Street to the West Side piers, to be loaded onto the nearest cruise ship -- where, I am certain, it will enjoy a long and happy life. -- David Barbour


(11 April 2019)

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