Daniel Fish’s direction of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at St. Ann’s Warehouse compelled me to search the number of times the word “want” appears in the libretto: I counted 75. Wanting—as desire, as frustration, as dangerous impulse—is a clear thread in this production, connecting the playful tones of Curly and Laurey’s charmingly obvious chemistry and Ado Annie’s irrepressible libido to darker distortions of sexual desire. This wanting also extends to the indefinable need for something more than what time, place, or society offers. Fish leans into Hammerstein’s habit of dropping the “I” in “I want” and allows the naiveté of a fundamental instinct, not merely the Oklahoman inflection, to ring through. When Laurey (a luminous Rebecca Naomi Jones) lists her wants to Ali Hakim (Michael Nathanson), including “things I’ve heared of and never had before” and “things I cain’t tell you about—not only things to look at and hold in yer hands. Things to happen to you,” we feel the full scope of her desire and are reminded that “want” always implies lack.
This bright clarity in an oh-so-familiar text is symptomatic of the genius of this production. Oklahoma! is the classic American musical. Whether you love or revile its whitewashed and romantic narrative of American togetherness, it is hard to deny its significance—or its popularity. Yet, at St. Ann’s, the one-liners crackled with fresh wit and the darkness at the musical’s core was allowed its full expression. Nothing was forced or imposed on the text, but simply given room to breathe. The same is true of the music. Daniel Kluger’s orchestrations, under the music direction of Nathan Koci and performed live by the excellent onstage band, give a contemporary freshness to the familiar tunes without overpowering the original composition. When Ali Stroker’s rendition of “I Cain’t Say No” as Ado Annie had me mentally drawing comparisons to Meghan Trainor, it only renewed my appreciation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s brilliance. Elsewhere, the music and lyrics—as with the dialogue throughout—are given enough surrounding quiet to highlight a simple beauty in many numbers I have previously found numbingly saccharine.
Of course, the individual performers play no small role here either. Rebecca Naomi Jones’s voice, in particular, has the capacity to reach for crystal lyricism and also take on a rich huskiness that lends a refreshing earthiness to Oklahoma!’s romantic numbers. Both she and Damon Daunno as Curly McLain let us see the sexuality neither of them know quite what to do with. In the supporting comedic roles of Ado Annie, Will Parker, Ali Hakim, and Gertie Cummings, actors Ali Stroker, James Davis, Michael Nathanson, and Mallory Portnoy play off each other with a quick vitality that feels current. Mary Testa easily sheds Aunt Eller’s stereotypical tough little old lady vibe. Her Aunt Eller is younger, gloriously deadpan, and much darker than depictions in the past. She is unrelenting in her rejection of Jud and after Curly kills Jud in the final scene, her disregard for the legal process is chillingly resonant.
The trial scene as scripted is profoundly troubling, even in more traditionally (and lamentably non-diverse) productions. Here, the pseudo trial recalls the lynchings of the past and today’s equivalent: the disproportionate police shootings of young Black men. (As a side note, the diversity of this cast undeniably enriched the production, but I couldn’t help wondering what the impact of casting a First Nations actor in Oklahoma! might be.) The scene also reminds us that, in the musical, Oklahoma is not yet a state; it is a territory still establishing the institutions by which it will be governed. This cast’s performance of the titular number transforms its rousing optimism into a stubborn, staggering, drowning of doubt and wrongdoing in desperate self-defense.
The final scene is rightly tragic, mostly because this production paints Jud as a heart-breaking character. Patrick Vaill manages to portray him as both threatening and deeply vulnerable, essentially an Incel, which works beautifully in highlighting the dangers of distorted male sexuality. Yet, it also creates one of the rare instances where the production seems to suppress rather than illuminate the text. Laurey needs to desire Jud for there to be any basis for the Curly-Laurey-Jud triangle. Jud is simultaneously appealing and threatening to Laurey because he stimulates the sexual feelings that, as a woman, she is trained to ignore. The few sexualized moments between them here are confusing and disjointed.
As a result, the dream sequence becomes removed from the dilemma of Laurey’s choice. Rather, it is an expression of internalized female conflict when faced with forceful masculine sexuality—desired or not. Dream sequences, in general, are difficult to negotiate, so it is not faint praise to say that there are moments in John Heginbotham’s dream ballet, as danced by Gabrielle Hamilton, that are truly compelling. Hamilton is strong and highly watchable and Heginbotham’s choreography has surprising hints of comedy amidst an otherwise nightmarish world. The threatening mood of the sequence sets up the musical’s darker second half.
The production’s skilled balancing and interplay of tonality is artfully assisted by the design elements. Laura Jellinek’s set makes superb use of the cavernous St. Ann’s space in a minimalist traverse stage that conjures up a country barn and is simultaneously open and claustrophobic. The cast shares the space with the audience and all are on stage for most scenes; in this rural community, everyone is always watching. Cellophane bunting strung above the stage adds color and warmth, then creates dreamy and, eventually, sinister shadows. Scott Zielinski sticks to highly effective washes of light—a warm flood for most of the performance that switches to a striking, saturated green for the private inner world of the characters and an icy white for the upsetting “happy ending.” Terese Wadden’s costumes maintain the Oklahoma setting, while seamlessly updating the characters’ cliché country vibe to more contemporary tight jeans and boots (letting loose with some frilly dresses for the box social).
Already an exercise in nostalgia at the time of its 1943 premiere, Oklahoma! feels amazingly contemporary seventy-five years later in this exceptional staging at St. Ann’s Warehouse. The cast and musicians breathe fresh life into the characters and tunes, while the production’s darker notes and sharp barbs do not impose on the romance and joyful comedy, but rather reveal themselves to have been there, under the surface, all along.