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Oklahoma! on Broadway: an opportunity to see an old play in a blinding new light

Sarah Crompton applauds the vision of director Daniel Fish to reinvigorate a classic with new meaning

The cast of Oklahoma! on Broadway
© Little Fang Photo

The production of Oklahoma! currently invigorating The Circle in the Square theatre in New York is an astonishing rethinking of an old classic. It takes Rodgers and Hammerstein's bright and breezy songs such as "Oh What a Beautiful Morning", and "The Surrey with a Fringe on Top", and without any lack of reverence transforms a show that has become an easy-listening warhorse into something scary, beautiful and thought-provoking.

Daniel Fish, the director, and his talented cast do all this without changing the 1943 original. They just look at it through a different lens. So the setting is a simple community hall, with long deal tables covered in pots of gently cooking chilli, that the audience are invited to share at the interval. Bunting and party lights glimmer overhead, but there are racks of guns on the walls; this is pioneer country where outsiders are treated with suspicion and disdain.

Damon Daunno's Curly isn't a strapping, leg-slapping hero, but a slip of a boy who sings with a country twang to the accompaniment of a stripped back band. Sex is in the air in his courtship of Laurie – but Rebecca Naomi Jones is having none of it. She isn't a simpering country girl but a conflicted woman, terrified of her feelings, anxious about making the wrong steps in life.

Ali Stroker and James Davis
© Little Fang Photo

In her comic echo, when Ado Annie (Ali Stroker, terrific) flings herself onto the knee of womanising charmer Ali Hakim (Will Brill), she virtually squashes him with her desire. This really is a girl who "Cain't Say No" – and no wonder her true love Will Parker (James Davis), who launches himself around the tables with the clumsy valour of a true troubadour, is worried about her fidelity. He is likely to be outwitted at every turn.

Real feelings are at play, troublesome, complex emotions. Nowhere is this truer than in the production's treatment of Jud Fry, the handyman who is obsessed with Laurie. In traditional productions of Oklahoma!, it's hard not to feel discomfited by the community's treatment of Jud; when Curly sings "Pore Jud" to him, imagining his rival's funeral, it always feels like an act of bullying.

Fish has seized on the oddity of this and turned Jud from a brawling, difficult thug into a troubled, weird loner, a man so hungry for love and inclusion that it turns him into a porn-loving stalker. Patrick Vaill plays him as someone who you would – like Laurie – simultaneously avoid and pity. His haunted face – at one moment beamed on the back wall, as he and Curly confront each other in the dark – is both a reproach and a warning. His fate makes the musical and the triumph of the 46th state leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

I'd always rather be in the company of those directors who dare to be different than those who play safe

It's a staggeringly bold and brilliant rethinking, so unusual and daring that I was surprised that more people didn't walk out. This is my favourite kind of production – one that loves and reveres the original but manages to see it in a fresh way. I felt similarly about Josie Rourke's Sweet Charity which has just opened at the Donmar and which pulls the same focus, stripping off the razzle-dazzle and the glitter paint to see the raw flesh beneath. Some people are clearly worried by the fact that Anne Marie Duff, as the hopeful dance hostess heroine, doesn't sing like a Broadway star, but I felt that was the point. The honesty in her voice transforms the mood of the show.

This rebalancing of a classic is a tricky thing and always likely to divide people. I adored Rebecca Frecknall's rethinking of Chekhov's The Three Sisters, currently at the Almeida, which has also split opinion. I thought she did something truly radical – and rather Russian, in fact, since native productions of Chekhov are often very robust in how they treat their great playwright.

Damon Daunno and Rebecca Naomi Jones
© Little Fang Photo

Just as Oklahoma! makes Jud the focal point of its reinterpretation, Frecknall views Masha's irritating husband in an entirely new way. Normally he is just a bumbling dolt, a fool in comparison to her lover, the dashing, philosophical Vershinin. In Frecknall's production, and Elliot Levey's performance, I saw for the first time that he is the only character who is living in the moment, prepared to be happy with his lot and make the very best of every second of his life, instead of wishing it away. His love for Masha and his devotion to her, in the face of her boredom and her disdain, suddenly seems heroic rather than laughable.

The revelation sent a shiver down my spine. It's not the only version of Kulygin or of the play, just as Fish's revisionist Oklahoma! is only one view. But it is those moments of insight that keep me going to the theatre over and over again. I'd always rather be in the company of those directors who dare to be different than those who play safe; the disappointments are far outbalanced by the opportunity to see an old play in a blinding new light.