The A Cappella strains of Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ have thrilled audiences for 75 years and have now returned to the Great White Way. Broadway has again welcomed the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, with director Daniel Fish’s innovative new take on Oklahoma!
The Broadway production stars Damon Daunno as Curly McLain. He does double duty as an actor and guitarist—often playing along with the seven-member band. “Strutting around with a guitar, singing these tunes, really feels amazing,” the actor says. “I feel like I’ve discovered new friends in Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
The newly Tony nominated award nominee is a Glen Ridge, New Jersey native. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In addition to his portrayal as Curley, last year Damon won the prestigious Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical for his performance in “The Lucky Ones” and was nominated for the Drama Desk Award for the show. “It’s a mark of any great piece of work that you can interpret it in any kind of way,” Daunno says of the newer take on the classic. “These melodies are so sweeping and the lyrics are so poetic that you don’t need 30 instruments to convey their bounty and beauty.”
Said Daunno of his new role, “I had seen it when I was eight and I thought, “I’m not really into Oklahoma!” And I thought there’s no way any production of “Oklahoma!” is ever going to cast me as Curly. But they came back and said, ‘Trust me, this is not your grandmother’s “Oklahoma!’ and then I Googled some bits of the movie and Hugh Jackman and cobbled together a video of me playing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin.” I wasn’t going to try to please them, but just do it the way I do it and it turned out that’s what Daniel Fish was looking for.”
Damon’s theatre credits also include Beardo in the play of the same name with the Pipeline Theatre Company in Brooklyn; Orpheus in the hit “Hadestown” with the New York Theatre Workshop; Claude in “These Paper Bullets” in both Los Angeles and in New York; the national premiere of “Brief Encounter” in Brooklyn, San Francisco and Minneapolis; Frocin in the Kneehigh Theatre’s rendition of “Tristan & Yseult” in numerous cities; Harold McClam in “Fly By Night” at the Dallas Theater Center; “The Wild Bride” in Berkeley, CA and Brooklyn, NY; the role of Jesus in “Jesus in India” in the play’s world premiere at Magic Theatre in San Francisco and Romeo in “The Last Goodbye” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. He is also a composer and multi-instrumentalist and has produced scores for short and feature length films. He has performed with orchestras on behalf of the U.S. State Department throughout Russia and Europe.
He started his high school life at Glen Ridge High School performing in their yearly play and was a member of the Drama Club. He performed in Guys and Dolls, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods. In his sophomore year, he transferred to Loomis Chaffee boarding school in Connecticut, where he walked on the stage of their Shakespeare Theater, auditioned and got the lead as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. Damon continued to be the lead in all their performances until he graduated. They included productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kiss Me Kate and Much Ado About Nothing, to name a few.
Around the age of ten, Daunno began playing electric guitar and auditioning for school plays. Musical theater represented the hybrid of his hobbies. After watching the 1955 movie version of Guys and Dolls, starring Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, he began to dive into the classics, old Hollywood movie musicals and their soundtracks. A remake of the film is in the works at TriStar and Damon would love to read for one of the parts. That will have to wait. He is committed to Oklahoma! His hard work, engaging character and shining talent has now been recognized with a nomination for a Tony Award in the category of Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical. The play has received a total of eight Tony nominations.
Oklahoma! represented the first collaboration between the Broadway golden age powerhouse duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. As an original production, it premiered on Broadway in 1943 and is largely credited with being the first musical to fully integrate its book, score and choreography towards advancing the plot. Daniel Fish’s version strips “Oklahoma!” down, discarding the picturesque costumes and the lush orchestration that audiences associate with the 1955 movie. This incarnation seems to be closer to the roots of taking place in 1906, the year in which the show (based on Lynn Riggs’s “Green Grow the Lilacs”) takes place.
Reviews have been over the moon about the play and about the performance of Daunno. Sara Holdren of New York Magazine/Vulture wrote, “The wiry, seductive Daunno doesn’t conform to the square, blond model of American manhood…he’s more indie-rock front man than singing quarterback, but he’s still Oklahoma!’s undeniable alpha male. If anything, Daunno’s Curly is a more complex and contemporary picture of self-satisfied masculinity. His sly, low-key swagger is instantly appealing and his pliable voice can swoop and dive, glisten and crackle and croon at will.”
The New York Times’ Ben Brantley wrote, “And how about the rockabilly inflections of our still adolescent-seeming Curly (a fabulous Damon Daunno). His performance conveyed the pure youth of this brave new world, with all its contradictions and energy.” He also questioned, “How is it that the coolest new show on Broadway in 2019 is a 1943 musical?”
Audiences have been lining up in answer to that question. Oklahoma! Is at the Circle in the Square Theatre. The revival will play a limited run through September 1st, but given the eight Tony Award nominations, the run may well be extended. But theatre goers should not take any chances and should quickly order tickets for this outstanding production. The 73rd Tony Awards will be broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Sunday, June 9th at 8:00 pm.