Review: Oklahoma, starring Damon Daunno and Rebecca Naomi Jones
In the new, stripped back version of Oklahoma! that is currently running at the Circle in the Square, everything you thought about this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic will be turned on its head. Free of extensive period costumes, lavish sets, and full bodied orchestrations, this Oklahoma! is one that brings the show back to the story that is at its core, and digging deeply into the darkness that lies at the heart of it.
Making his Broadway debut as a director, Daniel Fish has created his own Oklahoma!, one that is breaking the rules when it comes to revivals. Staged in the round, with minimal sets and costumes, you may wonder if it can truly do the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein justice. But it does indeed. By not giving the audience flashy design elements to focus on, Fish's modernization of the musical pulls it into the 21st century and lets the viewers become invested in the journey of the characters.
Damon Daunno leads the show as Curly, a guitar playing cowboy with his heart set on Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones), though she finds herself torn between him and her Aunt Eller's (Mary Testa) hired hand, Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill). Also in the territory is boy-crazy Ado Annie (the fantastic Ali Stroker), who takes up with the peddler Ali Hakim (Will Brill) while her sweetheart Will Parker (the endearing James Davis) is off in Kansas City.
While the focus of Oklahoma! is typically the romance, Fish leans into the darker aspects of the show, particularly Jud and Laurey's relationship. While the house lights are on for the majority of this production, we are plunged into darkness during moments that involve Jud. While Jud is usually presented as a foil to Curly, Fish does not let Jud's behavior go by unnoticed. It is almost unnerving about hearing the dialogue between Jud and Curly or Jud and Laurey without having any faces to focus on. The atmosphere becomes tense, and it leans into the darkness that has always been in the show, just never addressed in this way until now.
Fish succeeds in bringing the show into the modern world for the most part. The only misstep is in the dream ballet, which has become a contemporary sequence that loses its meaning as it goes on. However, the integrity of the show remains intact, while forcing you to think about it in a new way. There is something jarring about watching Curly and Laurey, newly married, singing the joyous title song while their white clothes are stained with Jud's blood. It asks the audience to look at this classic in a new way, while still breaking many boundaries and bringing out the joyous moments that are very well loved by many.