Concerning the fuss about Trevor Nunn’s dark psychological version of Oklahoma! may we, firstly, all keep calm and remind ourselves that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lovely, eternally bright golden haze of a musical ain’t Oedipus ?
If it were, it would have an exclamation point. ( Oedipus! ) To be sure, the fabled Oklahoma! has a serious undertow, though whether it really amounts to much more than showbiz melodrama is open to question. The masterful sentimentalist Oscar Hammerstein II knew that not everything in a rattling good yarn can be “cute and clean and purty and bright,” as Will and Ado Annie’s “All Er Nuthin’” perkily goes. But I regret that, for me, Mr. Nunn’s new production, which comes to Broadway via the Royal National Theatre, takes itself all too solemnly, earnestly over-mining the subtext and presumed erotic undercurrent. The outcome, in spite of the youthful buoyancy and juice (and near-desperation) of Susan Stroman’s choreography, is, at three hours, a lengthy evening that stops short of igniting the joyful spirit of a new American dawn.
The 1943 Oklahoma! was conceived during World War II as an antidote to the war. We might claim that Laurey’s ballad with the girls, “Many a New Day,” is a pre-feminist statement, but however you spin the musical as a whole, a good deal of it remains as struttingly folksy as a bow-legged barnyard dance. Look at the sheer romantic sweep of its score: the shining optimism of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” Curly and Laurey’s melting duet “People Will Say We’re in Love,” the giddy, swelling pride of the title song “Oklahoma!”, or the infectiously boyish come-on of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”:
When I take you out tonight with me
Honey, here’s the way it’s goin’ to be:
You will set behind a team of snow white horses,
In the slickest gig you ever see!
Oklahoma! was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration-the start of the most successful musical partnership in American musical history. Significantly, Richard Rodgers’ usual lyricist, the scintillating Lorenz Hart, turned it down. According to Brooks Atkinson, Hart didn’t believe he could write the lyrics for an outdoor play “set on a radiant summer morning several years ago.” Hart was for the urban night; he was for the shadows.
Do the shadows really exist in Oklahoma! ? What is it from its opening note, if not a musical of abundant youth and wholesome all-American sunniness? “We know we belong to the land / And the land we belong to is grand!” Hammerstein throws in a flinty moral: “You gotta be hardy . You can’t preserve the sweet and tender in life lest you’re tough.” He’s playing up to America’s gooey frontier myth about itself. Rodgers and Hammerstein are celebrating the land where the breeze is so busy it don’t miss a tree, and even we alleged city slickers can feel it in the glowing country scene:
There’s a bright, golden haze on the meadow,
There’s a bright, golden haze on the meadow.
The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,
An’ it looks like it’s climbin’ clear up to the sky.
Now there’s a song you can’t resist joining in! “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ / Oh, what a beautiful day …. ” But what infiltrates the production is Mr. Nunn’s wish for realism. He told The Times : “This is a real world, with real people, with a real cornfield near the house, with real corn that the girls strip and munch.” Sure looks like plastic corn to me, but no matter. The look of the production-the stage picture it presents-isn’t in the least bit real. If anything, Anthony Ward’s exaggerated perspectives have conjured up cuteness in the limitless horizon: the dinky little doll’s house in the distance, the miniature windmill, the cute toy train that puffs its way across the stage at the start of the show and the close.
I wrote some seasons ago, incidentally, that if I saw one more dinky doll’s house onstage, I’d shoot myself. But not before I’ve finished this review. A toy train was first seen on Broadway 24 years ago in Harold Prince’s production of On the Twentieth Century , but they keep on doing it just the same.
This Oklahoma! isn’t “real,” but faux real. Its golden horizon changes to clouds of dark foreboding each time evil Jud enters in darkest dust-bowl malevolence. It’s as if the stage direction read: “Enter Jud, pursued by clouds.” This isn’t realism or grand tragedy, but melodrama. It always was.
It’s been said that the entire first act of Oklahoma! is about whether Curly or Jud gets to take Laurey to the box social. (And it’s been said with good reason.) Of course there’s a psychological subtext! It was a blatant one to begin with, making it scarcely a subtext at all. Jud, the evildoer-and fan of girlie pictures-is the show’s obvious symbol of frontier lawlessness. He’s less a modern casebook of Laurey’s tempting Freudian nightmare, more an example of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s stereotypical stage villain and capricious Laurey’s flighty punishment of showoff Curly.
Either way, the leaden, semi-comic “Pore Jud Is Daid” and Jud’s dreaded drag of a hymn to himself, “Lonely Room,” have never been eagerly awaited high points. Mr. Nunn has added dialogue from the musical’s original source, Lynn Riggs’ 1931 Green Grow the Lilacs . But the forgotten play-a melodrama, surely-doesn’t seem to possess hidden treasure.
There’s treasure and a true subtext to be found in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s acknowledged masterpiece, Carousel, and the influence of its European source, Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom . It’s enough that Oklahoma! has long been celebrated for being the American watershed musical that changed the future. It was the first to fully integrate music, dialogue and dance (by Agnes de Mille), making it a musical play. Its original director, Rouben Mamoulian, had also directed the landmark Porgy and Bess . The 1927 Show Boat , the first modern musical, was written by Hammerstein. So Oklahoma! ‘s history is assured, but critical camp exaggerates its achievement.
Oklahoma! never lost its musical-comedy roots. The entire secondary plot between Ado Annie (the girl who cain’t say no), home-lovin’ cowboy Will and the Persian peddler Ali Hakim is straight out of frothy musical comedy and vaudeville. But the peddler is pushing too hard here, and far from being real, I’m afraid that Jessica Boevers has been encouraged to play Ado Annie as curly-cute as Shirley Temple. Then again, a comic actress as comically gifted as Andrea Martin needs to have more fun with her pivotal Aunt Eller. She needs to relax more, like the earnest production as a whole.
This is the same production as the one I saw in London four years ago, and though it was acclaimed as a masterpiece by some, I believe its flaws are the same. Except for two of the original cast-Josefina Gabrielle as Laurey and Shuler Hensley as Jud-the cast is now American. Unless we’re prepared to say that an American cast somehow can’t perform Oklahoma! as well as the Brits-and I’m not about to-the problems are found in the original production.
The dignity of Mr. Hensley’s baritone conveys Jud’s weighty pathos, but he’s still shouting a bit, overwrought, overacting. Ms. Gabrielle dances beautifully, but her Laurey has always been remote. She’s elegance in tomboyish overalls, and coolness disguised as the girl next-door in her pert ponytail and pretty bow. Crucially, we don’t sense a swooning emotional connection between her and Patrick Wilson’s winning, if lightweight, Curly. Mr. Wilson delivers the right brash confidence, though. He’s a natural charmer-a superior Curly, I’d say, to Hugh Jackman’s high-testosterone version in London, slapping his brand-new chaps for the gallery.
Talking of testosterone, Ms. Stroman’s bordello-and-barroom choreography during the dream sequence is a wee bit blatant in its choreographed cunnilingus. We get the point . But the admired Ms. Stroman has never been a restrained choreographer. Her work can be unrefined, coarse showbiz (this season’s Thou Shalt Not ), maniacally over-exuberant ( The Music Man, Big ), blah ( Steel Peer ), arty-tricksy ( Contact) or delicious ( The Producers) . But give her a big barn dance and watch out! Give her lusty cowboys and girls, and every night is New Year’s Eve. Her Act II opener is a stunner. But all this hormonal jollity is too forced, as if it had to be, in Mr. Nunn’s alien Oklahoma!
Follow John Heilpern via RSS.