“She doesn’t say the most and she’s not the loudest, but we get to sit with her thoughts a lot,” admits actress Rebecca Naomi Jones of her character Laurey in “Oklahoma!” The current Broadway revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic radically strips down the material and forces audiences to listen to the score in a new way. Watch the exclusive video interview above.
Director Daniel Fish stages this production within a minimalist setting of a community hall, where performances are laid bare and the text becomes the star. “What Daniel wants to get at is the truth at all times,” says Jones. That doesn’t mean there are any tweaks to the book or lyrics. Instead, Jones describes it as a reexamination of the test, “and falling in love with it in a different way.”
That “different way” started with her audition. Jones was asked to sing “Many a New Day,” but told to do it in a style and key all her own. With a contemporary sound that’s been on display in shows like “American Idiot” and “Passing Strange,” she is far away from the typical legit style of the music. Instead, Jones found a jazzy and quality within the music and describes the lyrics as “ballsy, like a firecracker.” “It spoke to me as a Rosemary Clooney kind of song,” she adds, which informed her approach. This collaborative process of discovery made the process akin to working on a new musical, despite the legacy that “Oklahoma!” carries with it over many decades of performances.
The staging has received rave reviews, though Jones notes that not all audience members know how to react to it, “and that’s okay.” “Theatre is really exciting when it makes people feel something strongly,” she claims. So the fact that even those who prefer a straightforward production of the classic are still discussing this revival is quite satisfying to her. Even more satisfying is finding that young people are understanding “something important about how we should treat each other.”
The way people treat one another is perhaps the most powerful theme in the story for Jones. The finale of the musical is a haunting reflection of our own society. “Sometimes we place one person’s life ahead or above another person’s life,” says Jones. That is the case for Jud (Patrick Vaill), who is alluded to having some sort of mental illness and is killed by Curly (Damon Daunno). This production hammers home the dark reality that the town “decides that he is a monster who should be killed so we can take care of our own.” Jones hopes that viewers watch the musical and think about how to better treat someone who feels like and “other.” It’s about “how a community can make a choice to be friends” she says, “we always have a choice to be kind.”
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