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Ali Stroker stars as Ado Annie in a bold new take on Oklahoma!
The morning after Ali Stroker performed "I Cain't Say No" on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, she woke up to thousands of new Instagram followers. No wonder: Belting out her character Ado Annie's sexy signature solo from Oklahoma!, currently running at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre, Stroker bewitched everyone watching, including the host, who exclaimed, "Oh my goodness! That is how you do it!" once she was done.
It was a smart move giving Stroker a chance to command the national spotlight. Ado Annie may be a supporting character, but as embodied by Stroker, who uses a wheelchair, she's much more than comic relief. She's vibrant, intriguing and smashes stereotypes, much like this provocative staging of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein classic. Directed by Daniel Fish, the gritty production originated at Bard SummerScape in 2015 and was immediately hailed by fans for illuminating the dark undercurrents of the 1943 musical which, over the decades, had become an unsubtle celebration of Americana. Last fall, Fish remounted the show at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse with some key cast changes, including Stroker. Tickets were hotter than the complimentary chili served at intermission, and soon a Broadway transfer was announced.
Fish hasn't made any textual changes. It's the same song-filled, turn-of-the-20th-century, Indian Territory-set tale about two loaded love triangles: Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones)-Curly McLain (Damon Daunno)-Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill), and Ado Annie-Will Parker (James Davis)-Ali Hakim (Will Brill). But with its stripped-down aesthetic, omnipresent guns and diverse cast, the show gets at uncomfortable truths about the bloody and oppressive history of our nation.
That's part of why audiences so enthusiastically embrace Stroker's Ado Annie when she stops the show with "I Cain't Say No." Unlike the other characters, who have ulterior motives or play manipulative romantic games, Ado Annie's a straight shooter. She's an empowered woman who embraces her desires -- she even flirts with the onstage band and front-row theatregoers while singing the heck out of the tune. It's one of the most exuberant and uninhibited scenes in the entire show.
"I think what has been really fun is to find this version of Ado Annie and to realize that she's not a caricature, she's not dumb," Stroker says. "She's really smart. She has a burning desire to explore. 'Cain't Say No' is sort of this anthem to just living your life and not judging yourself. She doesn't apologize for who she is."
The same can be said about Stroker herself. Born and raised in Ridgewood, New Jersey, Stroker set her sights on the stage from a young age, studying musical theatre at the Paper Mill Playhouse as a teen. She made history as the first actress in a wheelchair to graduate from Tisch Drama at NYU, and she became the first actress in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway when she played Anna in Deaf West's 2015 revival of Spring Awakening. As an advocate, she's thrilled to be breaking new ground for performers with disabilities, but as an actress, she wants the focus to be on her talent and versatility.
"My agents submit me for both roles that are specific to disability and those that are not," says Stroker, who's done a lot of TV since her last Broadway outing. "The truth is, even if it's a character with a disability, the story doesn't have to be about the person's disability. It is authentic to cast somebody who has a disability in a role that doesn't speak about disability because that's how real life is."
That's exactly what Fish did when he picked Stroker for Ado Annie. Her disability is never commented on during the show, just accommodated with tweaked choreography and costars who assist when necessary -- she gets swept up in a few different men's arms. But to get her on stage, big adjustments had to be made to the theatre.
While Stroker acknowledges that, thanks to initiatives like the TDF Accessibility Programs, audiences with disabilities are able to attend shows, changes are needed at most theatres in order to make them accessible for performers with disabilities. "Accessibility has been dealt with for patrons in a really beautiful way," she says. "But access is about inclusion and that means on all fronts. Like when I did the TDF Gala last month, just the fact that there was a ramp making it accessible for me to perform onstage, that meant the world to me."
Given the buzz on Stroker's performance, it's quite possible she'll make history once again if she becomes the first actress in a wheelchair to snag a Tony nomination. But she's not thinking about that right now. "I just love to perform and I think that representation is such a big deal right now in the world," she says. "I'm so proud and excited about the kinds of opportunities that are coming my way."
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Ali Stroker in Oklahoma! at St. Ann's Warehouse. Photo by Teddy Wolff.
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