This Royal National Theater version directed by the company's redoubtable director, Trevor Nunn, has gone back to Lynn Riggs' melodramatic play, "Green Grow the Lilacs," that inspired the 1943 Broadway musical, to focus on the subtexts of the plot. These involve the villainous character Jud Fry and the warfare between farmers and cattle ranchers.
Coming in at three hours in length, this weightier than necessary "Oklahoma!" seems longer than Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's original paean to the land and its people and less touched by magic or sentimentality.
Nevertheless, the wonderful score and the lilting songs reflecting an age of American innocence long since lost are still there to wash over present-day audiences and send them out of the theater humming the show's immortal melodies.
Agnes de Mille's original choreography, which transformed dancing on Broadway forever, has been dumped in favor of new choreography that won Susan Stroman, the American Tony Award-winner, a coveted Laurence Olivier Award in London. Stroman's work looks a lot like De Mille's, only lustier, but it is certainly one of the strengths of this production.
Nunn, who directed "Cats" and "Les Miserables" on Broadway, had originally planned to bring the entire London cast of his "Oklahoma!" to New York but this was nixed by American Actor's Equity, the union that does its best to keep American actors working. So only two British cast members remain in the show including its leading lady, Josefina Gabrielle in the role of Laurey.
Gabrielle, a ballet dancer as well as an actress, is the first Laurey to dance her own Dream Ballet, performed in all previous "Oklahoma!" productions and the 1956 movie version by a dancer stand-in.
She is elegant as a dancer, but carries some of the coolness that goes with elegance into her acting and singing, making the stubborn Laurie seems out-of-step with the earthy pioneers who are transforming the Oklahoma territory into a state. One never quite feels the sexual charge that burns beneath her teasing relationship with her importunate suitor, Curly.
This leading man role is fully realized by Patrick Wilson, a former member of "The Full Monty" cast. Wilson is everything that Curly is meant to be -- a bit of a dare devil and show-off, impulsively reckless and sweetly old-fashioned by nature. He has a reliable if not large tenor voice and a winning way with the several key solos, including the opening "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'."
Wilson makes a nice contrast to the surly Jud, whose fixation on Laurie appears to be baser in nature than Curly's but no less heartfelt. This role of the lonely outsider is played with unusual sensitivity by Shuler Hensley, the other holdover from the British cast and a fine actor with an expressive baritone that serves him well in his one big solo, "Lonely Room."
Andrea Martin reins in her talent for high comedy to create a wonderfully efficient but never formidable Aunt Eller, who manages to keep a semblance of law and order in a virtually lawless community far removed from the niceties of polite society. Jessica Boevers makes you believe she really is a nice girl although she can't say "No" in the role of Ado Annie, and she is comfortably teamed with an adoring Justin Bohon in the role of Will Parker.
One of the strongest performances in this revival is that of Ali Hakim as Aasif Mandvi, the Persian peddler with a girl in every crossroads town. Hakim gives the role that is generally played without much personality a fresh reading that makes Aasif a key player in "Oklahoma!'s" amorous game of musical chairs rather than an unwholesome cartoon character.
This is another aspect of Nunn's attempt to mine psychological depths only hinted at in the sunniest of all American musicals and to keep the show from seeming dated.
The attempt is generally worth the effort and certainly makes "Oklahoma!" a territory audiences will want to visit at least one more time if only to experience Stroman's rousing choreography for "The Farmer and the Cowman" that opens the second act.
This number shows off the huge supporting cast and chorus at its Broadway best.
Anthony Ward's set, which won him a 1999 Olivier Award, is so realistic that you almost can count the kernels on corn as high as an elephant's eye, and his costumes are an eye-delighting mixture of early 1900s plain and fancy. The British designer has even transformed the surrey with the fringe on top into a early vintage gasoline-powered buggy, just as up-to-date as anything in Kansas City.
No review would be complete without mentioning Kevin Sites' inspired conducting of a wonderful pit orchestra playing Robert Russell Bennett's original orchestrations with additions by William D. Brohn and some new dance music arranged by David Krane.
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