James Davis on Reimagining 'Oklahoma!' for a New Generation

By Jimmy Kontomanolis | April 12, 2019 | People

Often when musicals are revived on Broadway, the productions level up to bring audiences even more fanfare: more lights, more elaborate costumes, more extravagance. But this is not the case with Oklahoma! The classic American musical has once again landed on Broadway, but the Rodgers and Hammerstein story is reimagined for a modern audience, stripping down the piece to emphasize the book itself and its darker nature. After a run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, where it received rave reviews, Broadway audiences are in for a different take on the classic tale.

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We chatted with James Davis about his role as Will Parker in the show, bringing the reimagined version to Broadway, and what makes the show unique.

You’ve been in your role as Will Parker since this reimagined version of Oklahoma! originated. What’s it like to bring the show to Broadway?
JAMES DAVIS: It’s huge. I actually played Will Parker also in high school. And I haven’t really even done a musical since then, so it’s actually a huge, full circle, high school dream moment come true. I went to Juilliard and I studied the classics—classic American and British drama—and musical theater was really out of my purview, but working with really great, artistic directors has been a theme. It’s funny that these two storylines are meeting up, the high school musical version of myself and then the classically trained version of myself has wound me up on Broadway. It’s like a miracle. It’s bizarre and it’s strange and wonderful.

Not having had musical theater training, tell us a bit about your background and how you ended up in theater.
JD: When I first graduated school, I was doing a lot of Shakespeare. I played Juliet in Romeo & Juliet at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC, and that’s when I got my equity card. And then I’ve done a lot of classic American plays like Long Day’s Journey Into Night and American Buffalo. Daniel Fish worked in regional theater a lot as well, directing classic American plays. So I think that’s what kind of put us on the same working level. We had that in common. And so the working relationship was actually pretty simpatico and I was recommended to Daniel for first a reading by Thomas Bradshaw, and then he invited me to come up and do a week-long workshop through New York Theatre Workshop on a David Foster Wallace piece. I had moved out to LA; I was going to give LA a shot, as many an actor do. And the first thing that happened when I got out there was I got a call from the casting team and they asked me if I’d put myself on tape for [the role of] Ali Hakim. And I wasn’t sure if I wanted to put myself on tape for a regional theater musical, and I was like, “Wait, what am I thinking? Daniel’s directing this piece. It’s going to be awesome.”

It’s not the typical Broadway production, with elaborate sets and costumes. It’s stripped down to really let the story and the characters shine. Tell us about that experience and why you think that was an important component of the show?
JD: I think that what people are responding to is actually the excavation of the book work of the piece. I think people are really tuning in to these scenes, the acting scenes, as they’re written. I think in other productions, the difference was they were focused on the musical numbers. I’m not super well-versed with musical theater history, but I think a lot of times people show up to musicals for the musical components or the dancing components, and I think what’s really surprising to them is how great and dark the material is of the book scenes. And I think that’s what makes our production really different and surprising to people. And the response is almost like they’ve never even considered the book scenes. They’ve asked if we’ve changed anything, but we haven’t. This is what the material’s been for 76 years.

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It’s also a more modern take on the classic musical; it’s immersive and a bit dark at times, but it still stays true to the story. What do you want audiences to take away from the show?
JD: I want audience members to hopefully be inspired to be kinder and more fair to people that they might not understand at first. I really feel like this show is about the insiders, for better or worse, the way that they look at themselves versus the outsider. And there’s this big theme of “our territory first, our country first.” Taking justice into our own hands. As Daniel says, “We’re not trying to show how these people are good, we’re just trying to show how these people are.” And so I would hope that people leave with the sense of being more inclusive to others that they might not understand at first.

Your role as Will Parker and the dynamic with Ali Stroker as Ado Annie was one of the highlights of the show for me. What do you love about this character and playing Will Parker?
JD: I love Will Parker because he wears his heart on his sleeve. His intentions are just super clear. He wants Ado Annie, he wants love in his life, and he wants excitement in his life. I think both Will Parker and Ado Annie are extremely sexual people who could probably be with anyone they really wanted, but they know that they are meant for each other. So it’s super fun and easy to play with this character. He knows what he wants but he’s also a big flirt as well. He’s the one character in the story who’s coming back from a larger town—he went to Kansas City, he learned what it was to be cosmopolitan and worldly. And he’s coming back to this small town and saying, “Listen, they’re doing things different in other places, and it’s pretty cool.” But after all of that he still wants to come home and be with Ado Annie.

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What’s your favorite part of the show? Is there a particular moment that resonates with you?
JD: I really love the “Dream Ballet.” We’ve been doing tech a lot and a lot of the tech has been focused on the “Dream Ballet,” and making sure that we really do something that rises to the occasion in the same way that Agnes de Mille’s “Dream Ballet” was shocking and rose to the occasion for that time. People were going to see the Ziegfeld Follies, and then they see modern dance on stage and they didn’t know what to do. I think that the soul of the piece is the “Dream Ballet.” It’s really a moment, and I imagine the original was too, for the audience to really take stock in what they’re feeling and how uncomfortable they are with something that is a different form of storytelling. Oklahoma! is such an American comfort to people, but I think it’s really important for everyone to remember that the with “Dream Ballet,” there’s high art happening within the piece. The show is equal parts making you feel comfortable and uncomfortable. And I think it’s important to explore what makes you feel uncomfortable.

Aside from Oklahoma!, are there any great shows you’ve seen recently that you’d recommend?
JD: [Theater-wise], The Jungle at St. Ann’s—it’s not playing anymore—but that was a super important piece of theater. I did see To Kill A Mockingbird, and I think we’re doing something really similar. We’re excavating the darker themes of an American classic, reminding people what the material of these classics are in fact. I also just finished the series finale of Broad City and it’s so funny!

When you’re not on stage, where can we find you in New York. Any favorite hangouts?
JD: Prospect Park. I live right on Prospect Park, by the lake.



Photography by: Photography by Little Fang Photo