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American musical theater mythology: What does it say? What can it say? How much do we care?

Show time at St. Ann’s Warehouse? The set for Oklahoma! as the audience files in.

The quickest way to the public’s heart is through the manipulated past.

Politicians through the ages have played upon the public’s national identity by conjuring up nostalgia for an age that never quite existed but has a close-enough resemblance to one that did. Then comes the promise of recapturing that lost world. (I’m sure you can think of examples.)

In theater, however, the repurposed past can reflect much of what’s going on now, particularly when re-repurposed in the face of the looming mid-term election. Specifically, I’m talking about the radical revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! that plays at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse through Nov. 11 and the more benign Girl of the Golden West at the Metropolitan Opera, which closes Oct. 27.

What are they saying to us? One came down to a plea for forgiveness in a decidedly unforgiving world. Another is about the ways nice white people elude justice. But in neither case were the issues simple. Not at all.

The Puccini revival was a mixed success: The Oct. 17 performance had the long-awaited return to the Met of superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann, playing The Outsider in a Wild-West California-Gold-Rush community – as originally envisioned by American playwright David Belasco and refracted further by Giacomo Puccini. The Oklahoma! production was an ambitious “revisical” directed by Daniel Fish, with stripped-down sets, abrupt Brechtian lighting and a tendency to do exactly the opposite of what Broadway formulas dictate.

Both are storybook visions of America, but neither is a classic. The 1910 Girl of the Golden West shows Puccini with his usually unerring sense of theatrical timing going awry – understandably, since he was in the thick of a public scandal that included the suicide of his upstairs maid. Under any circumstances, Puccini’s emotive, well-upholstered lyricism was destined to be at odds with the rough-and-tumble life depicted onstage, though those worlds do effectively intersect, most notably in the first act when one of the opera’s barroom denizens has a meltdown while longing for the home he left. Whether or not they are convincing in the milieu, the characters have a strong emotional life amid the ultra-realistic Giancarlo del Monaco production with its meticulously rendered barroom, main street of town and mountainside cabin.

You want Minnie the bar owner to win the man she loves and has been waiting so long to meet, even though Dick Johnson is a man with a shady past. You even feel for Jack Rance, the opera’s baritone, who longs for Minnie amid his long-since-gone-stale marriage. More than most Puccini operas, this one has a nagging, underlying dissonance that makes you re-evaluate your reactions to the score when its lack of surface veracity gets the best of you.

The opera wasn’t seen at its best this time out, due to a cast where two of the three principals gave lukewarm performances. As Johnson, Kaufmann was in good voice and had some nice moments of soft singing but seemed marginally engaged. As Rance, Željko Lučić was as engaged as I’ve ever seen him, which means “not very.” Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie was left to carry the opera, and she certainly did, though with a bit of over singing in the second third acts. What came through stronger than most anything in the evening was her plea that the lynch mob spare Johnson when he turned out to be a long-feared highway robber whose real name is Ramerrez.

Johnson’s defense was that he never killed anybody. And if that gets him off the hook, are we dismissing his robberies under the heading of “it was only money”? That can seem appealing in this era of rampant greed – but the opera begins by showing just how much these gold rush miners are giving up to seek their fortunes. They are immigrants too, having come from the east to find gold in the west, and to be robbed of their toe-hold on prosperity by a roadside bandit has a cruel edge. Of course, Minnie suggests that she’ll keep Johnson in line as they go off into the sunset together, but that is not an easy resolution.

For all its seminal status in American musical theater history, the 1943 Oklahoma!, with its more lightweight characters, has even fewer claims to reality than the Belasco/Puccini version of a Gold Rush town. The 1955 movie, especially, looked back at 1906 (pre-statehood) Oklahoma in ways that were picturesque beyond belief. (Have cowboys ever been so impossibly clean?) The show changed the Broadway musical format almost overnight: Libretto and lyrics drove the show and the music followed, giving the play an extra emotional dimension. Even so, Oklahoma! remains wartime-America escapism, its plot revolving around a schoolhouse auction where a nice guy and bad guy vie for the desirable heroine Laurey.

St. Ann’s Warehouse was outfitted to look like a country fair, and even served vegetarian chili at intermission. Act I ended with Laurey singing “Out of My Dreams” with no accompaniment – the opposite of a typically elaborate Broadway Act I finale; Rebecca Naomi Jones pulled it off with sheer charisma. Act II began with the famous “Dream Ballet” that usually ends Act I, and was used as a vehicle for an abstract interpretive dance while familiar songs from the score were played on wailing electric guitar, Jimi Hendrix-style. The one unquestionably right innovation in this production was the deft re-imagining of the score with country-swing-band arrangements by Daniel Kluger. Honestly, the score sounded more authentic here than in the typical Broadway orchestrations. Even more authentically, Curly (Damon Daunno) joined in on his own guitar.

The main point, though, was the ending. Laurey and Curly are just married and about to take off on their honeymoon. The shady farm hand Jud, who wants Laurey for himself, shows up with a gift – a box containing a gun. When he stands back from the happy couple, Curly shoots him. And then the rest of the show is taken up with an impromptu trial that gets him off free – just in time to catch the train to his honeymoon destination. Obviously, this is a commentary – and a well-taken one – on situational justice in America: white people are a lot more likely to get off free.

Here’s the complication: Jud (unlike Dick Johnson) is as white as anybody, but he’s a loner and outcast who lives in an isolated shack decorated inside with photos of scantily-clad women. He has lousy manners. But is he a killer? Other renderings of Oklahoma! suggest that he’s at least a destructive fire bug, and clearly a time bomb. But here? In a tense moment earlier in the show, Jud shows Curly a kaleidoscope tube that has a concealed blade. Were Curly not distracted at a crucial moment, the blade could’ve gone into his eye and maybe killed him instantly. But the audience knows that better than the onstage characters. Therefore, the audience is the jury. And again, answers aren’t easy. Would it have been a prank gone wrong? Or pre-meditated murder?

Another question: Is this anything close to what Oklahoma! is supposed to be? Due to the lower-than-Broadway ticket prices, I saw a number of families there, with well-meaning parents thinking that this was the only way they could afford to take their kids to see what they thought would be a light-hearted show. And some of them left early.

Clearly, entertainment was not this production’s playing field. And what else can you expect from director Daniel Fish? He’s a severe figure who seems categorically against letting audiences leave feeling good. Or even okay. Or even not depressed. Then again, maybe there’s no place in our current culture, at least in a blue state, for an escapist Oklahoma! 

And the reason to do it at all? A cultural landmark like this one is inevitably a measuring stick that shows how far we’ve come, both theatrically and politically, or how far we’ve fallen.

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