The Mornin' Ain't So Beautiful For This Dark 'Oklahoma!' Production In upstate New York, an experimental staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic sets a key scene in total darkness and adds coldblooded murder to the plot.
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The Mornin' Ain't So Beautiful For This Dark 'Oklahoma!' Production

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The Mornin' Ain't So Beautiful For This Dark 'Oklahoma!' Production

The Mornin' Ain't So Beautiful For This Dark 'Oklahoma!' Production

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

"Oklahoma!" was the first of musical from the celebrated team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It won them a special Pulitzer, in part, for the way it integrated song, dance and story. Well, now a new experimental production is asking audiences to focus on the story beneath "Oklahoma's!" well-known songs. That's happening at the Bard SummerScape Festival in upstate New York. Jeff Lunden has more.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: On the surface, "Oklahoma!" seems like a simple story about a young woman deciding whether to go to a party with a dangerous, lonely farmhand...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: ...Or a nice, young cowboy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "OKLAHOMA!")

DAMON DAUNNO: (As Curly McLain, singing) Oklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plain. And the waving wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain.

LUNDEN: But there's a dark undercurrent to the story. The show is set at the turn of the 20th century before Oklahoma became a state when the territory was in social and political upheaval. Producer Gideon Lester says Rodgers and Hammerstein understood this.

GIDEON LESTER: There is no history of colonization or expansion or the building of nationhood that doesn't contain violence in it. And "Oklahoma!" dramatizes that. Now, it does it in a way that is sunny and funny and full of beautiful music and that juxtaposition makes that violence even more disquieting, I think.

LUNDEN: And disquiet is just what director Daniel Fish is after.

DANIEL FISH: The hope is that it's dark and disturbing and celebratory and happy and all of these things thrown together. And how do we reconcile those things or do we not reconcile those things?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "OKLAHOMA!")

PATRICK VAILL: (As Jud Fry, singing) The floor creaks, the door squeaks, there's a field mouse nibbling on a broom. And I sit by myself like a cobweb on a shelf, by myself in a lonely room.

LUNDEN: To help the audience feel the musical's conflicting emotions, director Daniel Fish puts them close to the action. The audience sits at long tables on all four sides of the playing space, which is made to look like a community hall. There's no chorus. Instead of a full orchestra, there's just a six-piece band on stage, with pedal steel guitar and banjo. And the actors sometimes just speak their lines sitting in chairs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "OKLAHOMA!")

MARY TESTA: (As Aunt Eller) Lots of things happen to folks - sickness or being poor and hungry even, being old and a fear to die. That's the way it is, cradle to grave.

LUNDEN: Broadway veteran Mary Testa plays Aunt Eller.

TESTA: You see Shakespeare is done in a million different ways, a million different settings. And I think that "Oklahoma!" or any show by Rodgers and Hammerstein, which is, you know, well-crafted material, can be looked at in lots of different ways. And so this is a different way of looking at "Oklahoma!"

LUNDEN: Some of Daniel Fish's staging ideas are very different, says Ted Chapin, who represents the Rodgers and Hammerstein estates.

TED CHAPIN: There are choices that are made that I'm not sure if somebody said to me we're thinking of doing this, what do you think of that? I'm not sure I would've said that's a good idea. He's made a bold choice of what is really the scariest scene in the show - the confrontation between Jud and Curly.

LUNDEN: In this production, Curly, the cowboy, confronts Jud, the farmhand, in the gloomy hovel where Jud lives. Director Daniel Fish says Oscar Hammerstein spends some time in his libretto describing the place.

FISH: That it's dark, that it's the source of a kind of sexuality and a kind of unknown and, well, how do you do that in this space? Well, sometimes the dumb answer is the best answer - well, what'll happen if we do the scene in the dark?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "OKLAHOMA!")

VAILL: (As Jud Fry) You better get out of here, Curly.

DAUNNO: (As Curly McLain) A fellow wouldn't feel very safe in here with you if you didn't know you. But I know you, Jud. In this country, there's two things you can do if you're a man - live out of doors is one and live in a hole is the other.

LUNDEN: Damon Daunno plays Curly and says the scene and the way it's presented is essential to the production's exploratory esthetic.

DAUNNO: It's amazing how uncomfortable a bit of dark (laughter) makes people - understandably - but it really changes the sort of spine in the room. You can really feel that. And then it makes every word really specific.

LUNDEN: Where the production may be most controversial is at its end. The original play's accidental death becomes a cold-blooded murder. Daniel Fish says this makes a deliberate point.

FISH: It makes the community culpable, and I would argue that it probably makes the audience culpable as well.

LUNDEN: And that, he says, gives them something to think about.

FISH: You know, it's an old story, but it's also a story that matters now in terms of issues of community, in terms of violence, in terms of how we create outsiders and in terms of love.

LUNDEN: While this production only runs through July 19, both commercial and nonprofit producers have been traveling to Bard see whether this re-imagining of "Oklahoma!" might work in New York City. As actor Damon Daunno says...

DAUNNO: It is not your grandma's "Oklahoma!"

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "OKLAHOMA!")

DAUNNO: (As Curly McLain, singing) Oh, what a beautiful morning.

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