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A CurtainUp Review Oklahoma

by David Heppel

When Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in 1943, it broke the mould. Unashamedly set outside Manhattan, without a splashy opening, integrating story and songs, and with a fifteen minute ballet ending the first half, it was unlike anything Broadway had seen. So much so that a well known Broadway producer of the time (Mike Todd) famously said "No gags, no gals, no chance". He was, of course, wrong, and the record 2,212 performances it notched up in New York stood for fifteen years (before being beaten by My Fair Lady).

The story revolves around two triangles of characters - Laurey, a pretty young girl, and the two men that love her, the clean-cut Curly and the more sinister Jud Fry; and the more light-hearted trio of Ado Annie and her two suitors, Will Parker, and a peddler, Ali Hakim. Curly, having muffed his chance to go to the box social (an evening where the men bid for picnic hampers and the girls who made them) with Laurey (who goes with Jud), sells all his worldly goods to beat Jud and buy her hamper. Finally certain of their love for each other, they marry - but the love-torn and angry Jud turns up and whilst attacking Curly, falls on his own knife. Meanwhile, Ali tries his best to avoid marrying Ado Annie - and eventually succeeds by getting Will the $50 he needs to marry her himself.

The music represents Rodgers and Hammerstein at their very best. Best known in this country for The Sound Of Music, in America, Oklahoma! made them. "Oh What A Beautiful Mornin'", "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top", "I Cain't Say No", "Many A New Day", "People Will Say We're In Love", "The Farmer And The Cowman" and of course "Oklahoma!" itself form the basis of a truly memorable score.

From the very start, where a near transparent curtain encloses the National Theatre's circular Olivier stage, you are aware of the quality of the forthcoming performance. Some have said that the National is no place for the mounting of such a popular classic - but even they should be silenced by this heartswellingly beautiful production. Uniformly excellent performances from the cast (in singing, dancing, acting - whatever you care to mention) and a simple, effective set designed by Andrew Ward (superbly evoking the wide-open spaces as well as the more confined, intimate moments between the characters) display this well-loved show at its most appealing.

After being brought up on Curlys with powerful, booming voices (like Howard Keel, or Gordon Macrae in the film) it is initially strange to witness one singing with a more delicate realism. Rather than 'bursting' into song, Hugh Jackman's Curly slips seamlessly from dialogue to song and back so that it seems the most natural thing in the world. In fact, bearing in mind the quality of those who have played the characters before, the leading actors would do well just to impress - but they excel. Among the memorable performances: Josafina Gabrielle (Laurey) is suitably tough, but confused; Peter Polycarpou is wonderfully funny as the loveable rogue Ali; Jimmy Johnston is clearly a talented man, and impresses everyone as the rope-twirling, lassooing, back-flipping, singing and dancing Will Parker; and Shuler Hensey gives a mesmeric performance as the tormented Jud Fry - showing the sadness of the man behind the hulk.

Trevor Nunn's direction is secure and delicate. Susan Stroman's choreography is similarly impressive - thrilling, energetic and electrifying, but above all, expressive, without ever impeding the dramatic flow. Such is her reputation (she has also choreographed Showboat and Crazy For You in recent years), that the normally cagey Rodgers and Hammerstein estate have given her the freedom to change the original Agnes de Mille choreography (a permission they have never previously granted).

The only quibble with the show would be its use of gunshots. Often, there is a problem in theatres where over-loud and startling gunshots induce a nervous laughter from the audience, which tends to interrupt the dramatic flow. While this is avoided here, the sound has been reduced in the process to little more than that of a cap-gun which makes it sound strangely artificial. Leaving this very minor niggle to one side, this is a classic show with superb performances. If you can get to see it before it closes in October, you won't be disappointed. If you can't, you'll have to wait for the cast recording to be released, and try and imagine what you've missed.

Editor's Note: David Heppel's positive review echoes most of the other London critics, with London Times chief critic Benedict Nightinggale raving both in his home paper as well as TheNew York Times. He answers his own question "Has there ever been a higher standard of dance in any subsidised theatre?" with a resounding "No." Only Nicolas de Jongh of The Evening Standard sounded less than gung ho, (while admitting that it's a "rich feast of dream-pie" it apparently wasn't the kind of pie he'd choose to dine on).

All this praise begs the question: Can Oklahoma's triumphant return to Broadway be far behind the National's run (scheduled to end October 30th)? It also prompts a sneak peek quote from New Yorker critic John Lahr in Myra Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer's It Happened On Broadway (See our review:

The optimism of America is very strange thing to anyone outside the culture. The reason the English don't do American musicals very well is that they don't believe thateverything is coming up roses, that something'scoming, something good, if you can wait."
Clearly this was before Trevor Nunn made Oklahoma a place and a play transcending its geography! -- e.s.

October 5, 1998 Editor's Addendum: The New York Times critic Ben Brantley just returned from a whirlwind tour of London and was ecstatic about the show's "miraculously" fresh feel -- a restaging "beyond the usual respectful museum-piece revivals" that "comes closer than any version I've seen in creating a sense of how thrillingly novel the original production must have been". As for the songs themselves, Brantley said that even the opening chestnut ("Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'") "had a feeling of conversational spontaneity". Since his overview of the London shows was threaded around the theme of sex, he also commented on the appropriately shadowy life given to the show's troubling eroticism and the fact that the "acknowledgment of darkness only enhances the energy-charged light thrown off by the ensemble."

Music by Richard Rodgers, book by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs.
Directed by Trevor Nunn
With: Maureen Lipman, Hugh Jackson,Helen Anker, Julie Barnes, Sarah Bayliss, Warren Carlyle, Chris Coleman,Leigh Constantine, Elizabeth Cooper Gee, Amanda Courtney - Davis, Philip cox, Marily Cutts, Zoe Dawson, Susie Dumbrek, Tom Dwyner, Howard Ellis, Josefina Gabrielle, Jason Gardiner, Shuler Hensley, Shaun Henson, Sarah Ingram, Neil Johnson, Jimmy Johnston, Nicola Keen, Gavin Lee, Fergus Logan, Stuart Milligan, Helen Missing, Peter Polycarpou, Craig Purnell, Tony Selby, David Shelmerdine, Vicki Simon, Rebecca Thornhill, Kevin Wainwright.
Royal National's Olivier Theatre
7/6/98-10/03/98; opened 7/15/ 98
Transferring to the Lyceum Theatre 1/20/99-6/26/99 with most of the major cast members going along
Reviewed by David Heppel

Review © July 1998, David Heppel/London Theatre Guide

Page © Elyse Sommer, August 1998
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