Monday, July 13, 2015

Oklahoma! — at Bard Summerscape ****

Director Daniel Fish’s concept for this production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration is highly original. He has reduced the cast to ten and, with new musical arrangements by Daniel Kluger, cut the musicians to a band of six that includes a mandolin, a banjo, an accordion and a pedal steel guitar. The audience is seated at two tiers of long tables that surround the rectangular space holding  the actors and musicians. On the tables are crockpots of chili that will be served along with cornbread and lemonade at intermission. Colorful foil ribbons hang from the ceiling. Not to be overlooked are the racks of rifles that completely cover one wall. The actors sit on folding chairs inside the rectangle when not performing and occasionally sit on or jump on tables and race around the aisles. Clearly, this is not your grandparents’ “Oklahoma!” Its immersive nature reminded me of the staging of “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.” The only actor’s name I recognized was Mary Testa, who makes a fine Aunt Eller. Curly is played by Damon Daunno, who looks like a pop star, plays a mean guitar, but is a bit insecure vocally. Amber Gray is a fine Laurey. James Patrick Davis is solid as Will Parker. Allison Strong seemed a bit tepid as Ado Annie. Benj Mirman resists the urge to unduly caricature Ali Hakim. Patrick Vaill is a complex, almost sympathetic Jud. There is much to admire. The scene in the smokehouse begins in total darkness and is then augmented by huge video projections of Jud and Curly in tight closeup. On the minus side, instead of the famous dream ballet to end the first act, we get a strange musical pastiche at the beginning of the second act that is meant to represent Laurey’s dream. It didn’t work for me. My only strong objection is to a drastic revision of the book that occurs a few moments before the end. The final confrontation between Curly and Jud has been completely changed in a manner that casts a new, rather sinister light on everything that has preceded it. I must confess that I am surprised that the powers that control Rodgers and Hammerstein productions allowed it. It was not enough to spoil my appreciation for an otherwise thoroughly engaging show. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including intermission.

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