The current cabaret production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! directed by Daniel Fish at Bard’s Luma Theater is more countrified than urbanized, casting a glance backward and gazing into the probing present. More cerebral than jolly, this version weights the dark underbelly of the script, which musical productions often gloss over. The result is closer to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath than “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
The result is extremely stimulating, but the production is not wholly satisfactory. I thought the two lead male actors, Damon Daunno, as Curly, and James Patrick Davis, as Will Parker, were miscast. With decent but not memorable voices, they had the right accents, yet lacked the bedrock authenticity of ranchers. Will Parker’s signature number “Kansas City” let the humor of the song vanish in air before irony could resonate; there was an awkward self-consciousness to his hayseed charm that convinced one that he really had no charm. Curly was too superficially the half-charming fellow well-met that his affable portrayal could not muster his transformation from hero to villain. Daunno was at his best in his scene with the heavy, Jud, played by Patrick Vaill, who turned in the strongest male performance in this production. The sordid scene between Jud and Curly was boosted in a most unusual way: it was pre-recorded on black-and-white video and projected in the dark on the walls of the theater—sounds like this might not work, but the result was stunningly successful. Benj Mirman, as the Persian peddler Ali Hakim, provided a rock-solid supporting role and needed comic relief that exuded the aura of a fake elixir.
Amber Gray as the femme fatale, Laurey Williams, turned in the most accomplished singing performance of the production. She received wonderful acting support form Allison Strong as Ado Annie Carnes, a charming naïf who lives only in the present. Gertie Cummings as Mallory Portnoy sang her number well, sported a memorable laugh, and one wished she had a larger role. Mary Testa as Aunt Eller managed the varied registers from idle boredom to bottom-line cunning with aplomb.
The country band was adequate with violinist Brain L. Thompson threading subtlety into the ensemble pompously conducted by accordionist Nathan Koci, yet his use of a corncob as baton provided effective buffoonery. Even with plywood plastered all over the theater, the acoustics battered the ear with steel echoes. I thought the long prelude to the second act problematic: the raucous satire on contemporary rock music floated as mere gratuitous digression.
The climatic “courtroom” scene where Mary Testa excelled was underplayed as mere routine, corrupt favoritism. Mitch Tebo as Andrew Carnes might have displayed more anguished ambivalence than bland resignation. This production highlights the past and current state of cowboy culture with a sinister glow, leaving the show’s finale drenched with horrifying irony.
Costumes by Terese Wadden were efficient, yet I thought the two male leads to be overly duded-up. I found the contemporary frisson in the costume of Ado Annie effective. The informal manner of other costumes worked well. Sets were simple but effective. The rifle rack on the Western wall was awesome.
While my reaction to this production remains mixed, I found the production to be provocative in a good way. I highly recommend this startling cabaret version. If you go with a companion, you will have much food for conversation. This is a theater in the round at picnic tables, as if you were attending a county fair. It’s best to buy tickets early—the better seats reside on the eastern semi-circle. The show rums Wednesdays through Sundays until July 19.