NEW YORK — Where in the pantheon does one place a vibrantly, cerebrally remastered golden-age musical that is held back a bit by some weak-tea singing and dancing?
The fascinatingly radical “Oklahoma!” revival that had its official opening Sunday at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre betokens an exciting new variation on presenting the work of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the kings of early American musical drama. Director Daniel Fish, in a production that has made its way from Upstate New York to Brooklyn and now to Times Square, understands the undercurrents in this 1943 musical that have long waited to be more richly elucidated: Namely, that the bright golden haze on the meadow Curly sings about is merely an obscuring metaphorical effect, intended to blind us to more troubling realities.
In Fish’s version — which, mind you, treats the text and score themselves as sacrosanct — we are asked to consider the bad choices that the populace of a burgeoning democracy could make: most of all, with regard to prejudicial snap judgments about people, based on their sexual desires or mental incapacities, and even worse, to a substitution of expediency for justice.
It is in the central romantic triangle, among the classic lovers, Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Curly (Damon Daunno) and the menacing loner, Jud (Patrick Vaill), that Fish offers up his most original plot twist. That shocking, sure-to-be-debated interpretive alteration won’t be divulged here, but it is safe to reveal that it stunningly shifts your estimation of Curly and the other pioneering folk, and upends your own need for a tidy ending free of doubt about what conscience issues Laurey and Curly carry into the future.
The production, staged in Circle in the Square’s intimate quarters, under a blaze of house lights that designer Scott Zielinski keeps on for much of the evening, is great intellectual fodder; look soon online for the seminars musical-theater enthusiasts will sign up for, to bat around the other classics that might be Fishified. The physical surroundings remind you of a rehearsal room. Set designer Laura Jellinek has nailed blond plywood panels to the theater’s walls and the floor of the thrust stage, which is lined with chairs and long tables; one of them is piled high with corn. The seven-member orchestra sits in a shallow pit cut out of the floor, and the ceiling is bedecked in the kinds of streamers and Christmas lights you might find in a dollar store.
Perhaps the simple mise en scene is meant to assist in the illusion of deconstruction, but it’s more useful in lowering performative expectations. With the exception of Mary Testa’s Broadway-fortified pipes, employed effectively in her portrayal of Aunt Eller, and the wonderful contributions of Ali Stroker, whose Ado Annie delivers a beautifully sung and comically precise “I Cain’t Say No,” the voices aren’t of the transporting variety. (A special note of praise, however, is due to Vaill — who played Mordred in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Camelot” last year in Washington — for the most devastating “Lonely Room” I’ve ever heard.)
Some actors add twangy flourishes to their numbers, or caterwaul the high notes, which only put you in mind of better renditions you’ve heard, or that the voices aren’t quite up to the demands of Rodgers’s lush brand of melody.
Even more disappointing is the attempt, situated here at the top of Act 2, to revolutionize the dream ballet, a bloated hallucination choreographed by John Heginbotham and danced by Gabrielle Hamilton (in a sparkly T-shirt emblazoned with “Dream baby dream”). It is typically portrayed as a nightmare of Laurey’s anxieties about Jud and Curly, but is reworked on this occasion as Laurey’s jazzy aspirational vision. Even with some sense of homage to the original choreography by Agnes de Mille, the sequence comes across as generic modern dance — and way too long.
Jones’s Laurey and Daunno’s Curly have the requisite chemistry; social media mavens have hashtagged this production #SexyOklahoma (oh, you crazy kids). Jones is especially good at illuminating the ambivalence that activates an enticing mystery in this production: Laurey seems repulsed by the slightly creepy Jud, and yet also intrigued by his off-kilter intensity. Is it that he awakens in her a deeper sense of her own blackness, and feelings of being marginalized in a white-bread society, one with other intimations of false homespun values? (Aunt Eller, after all, makes her corn bread not from scratch, but out of a box.)
What’s best in this “Oklahoma!” is the morally ambiguous cue Fish develops so smartly from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s own narrative impulses. Whether through Billy Bigelow’s violent tendencies in “Carousel,” or Nellie Forbush’s racist streak in “South Pacific” or the King of Siam’s misogynistic blind spot in “The King and I,” there is often a deep flaw in a major R&H character, waiting to be redeemed. What feels so remarkable on this occasion is that you can find in their “Oklahoma!” and Fish’s that redemption is not always a credible outcome.
Oklahoma!, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, music by Richard Rodgers. Directed by Daniel Fish. Orchestrations and music supervision, Daniel Kluger; set, Laura Jellinek; costumes, Terese Wadden; lighting, Scott Zielinski; sound, Drew Levy. With Will Brill, James Davis, Mallory Portnoy. About 2 hours and 45 minutes. Tickets: $69.50-$249.50. At Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50th St., New York. telecharge.com or 212-239-6200.