Who’d have thought the most controversial show this spring would be . . . Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”?
A revival of the 1943 musical opening Sunday is dividing audiences and Tony voters. Partisans think it’s a brilliant updating of a chestnut. Detractors say it’s an abomination against a beloved classic.
Directed by Daniel Fish, this “Oklahoma!” is tuneful and funny, brutal and dark, but still bright: The house lights stay on throughout most of the show. Curly is no longer a sunny hero, but an arrogant force for all that the white man will do to Native Americans while settling the West. Jud Fry is no longer an ugly weirdo, but a sensitive, sexy and troubled farm hand, evoking at turns sympathy and terror.
Guns line the walls of the theater. An actress in a wheelchair — Ali Stroker, getting raves — plays Ado Annie. And the show ends with Laurey and Curly drenched in blood on their wedding day.
When the production played Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, the Times critics loved it. They can’t be seen as aging white guys out of touch with theater for hipsters. (The Times is so “woke” these days, I’m dying to drop an Ambien in its martini.) But the Hollywood Reporter, whose critic is another aging white guy, was skeptical: “It’s when the director most imposes himself on the material that you want to run screaming for the exits.”
Tony voters are equally divided. A few told me they hated every minute of it. Others thought it was thrilling and original. But most agree that the dream ballet is way too long. Even some people on the show wish the director would cut it.
Behind the scenes, the producers are trying to figure out how to sell it. They’ve divided potential audiences into “Oakies” and “Nokies.”
“Oakies” are traditional theatergoers who love the “Oklahoma!” of Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones. Give them a revival that says America is racist and gun-mad, and they’ll opt for “Kiss Me, Kate.”
“Nokies” are younger theatergoers for whom “Oklahoma!” is something their grandmothers still play on a turntable. Reared on “Rent,” they have little use for butter churning and song titles that end in exclamation points. This experimental, edgy version is something they’d probably enjoy.
A marketing campaign has been tailored to each, with the idea that the “Oakies” and the “Nokies” should be friends.
Wherever you come down, “Oklahoma!” is sure to be in the mix for the Tony Awards. It will square off against the Roundabout’s dandy but more conventional revival of “Kiss Me, Kate.” (If the Yiddish revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” had gone to Broadway instead of Stage 42, it would be the revival to beat.)
If this “Oklahoma!” succeeds at the box office, expect even more radical revisions of the classics: an “Annie Get Your Gun” that overturns the Second Amendment; an “On the Town” where the sailors end up in Julius in the Village, and an “Oh! Calcutta!” in black tie.
You can hear Michael Riedel weekdays on “Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning” on WOR radio 710.