Oklahoma!, Oh No

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There's a bright golden haze on the medder?and on just about everything else in Trevor Nunn's revival of Oklahoma!?but it's the hard, cold glint of lucre, not the burnished glow of rebirth and renewal. This long-awaited production, which was hailed, when it opened four years ago at London's Royal National Theatre, as a wholesale rethinking of Rodgers and Hammerstein's first-ever collaboration, arrives at the Gershwin looking strangely like a revival you might have expected to see at the Paper Mill Playhouse 10 or 15 years ago. It's anxious to be liked but charmless, imitative rather than innovative or inventive, and very much of a piece with the poster art that advertises the show here in New York?that garish computerized photo of a pretty, hay-sucking cowboy superimposed on a Chamber of Commerce vista of grass and sky. (The London artwork was more tasteful.) Only two of the cast members from the RNT production appear here: Shuler Hensley, who plays the villainous hired hand Jud Fry as though he were playing Sparafucile, and Josefina Gabrielle, reprising her performance as an ingenue who might be a lot happier in a production of South Pacific.

So what gives? How could a production that caused such a stir over there be such a disappointment here?

A good deal seems to have hinged on casting. In London the role of Curly was played by the somber, laconic Australian actor Hugh Jackman, a then-newcomer who has since gone on to become something of a movie star. That he was sexy and smoldering and seemed innocent of Broadway-style vulgarity are easy things to imagine. (You can hear, on the London recording, how simply and unself-consciously he sings; you can almost taste the absence of that dreadful Broadway ailment, a desire to please.) The young man who plays the role here in New York, Patrick Wilson, comes with a string of regional roles and national tours to his credit, as well as a recent stint in another big, boisterous musical (The Full Monty). Not surprisingly, he is about as laconic and unshowbiz as Ethel Merman.

It's hard to imagine if you've never seen it happen how casting even a single role against expectation or tradition so as to distance it from a familiar style of performance can alter the terms of a piece of drama. That, certainly, was behind Nicholas Hytner's casting of the leads in his 1993 "reinvention" of Carousel, which came to Lincoln Center a year later. Hytner cast Michael Hayden, a diminutive actor with virtually no training in musical theater as Billy Bigelow, and inNew York, the unaffected but slightly mousy young Steppenwolf actress Sally Murphy as Julie Jordan. Opera aficionados beefed about the quality of their vocal skills. The fact was though, that with a runty Billy and an unglamorous Julie, the codependent relationship at the heart of the show became instantly intelligible.

The revival of Carousel had a great deal more going for it, though. What Hytner did, essentially, was bring to bear on a Broadway musical the same close textual reading that's characterized British productions of Shakespeare for 40 years. He looked at the show and determined, rightly, that on numerous levels it was really all about time?fleeting time, yawning time, seasons and ripeness, urgency and delay, nonfulfillment and the brevity of life. It was all right there for anyone to see?in the lyrics, in the bizarre structure and chronology of the show, and especially in the quantity of musical postponements, lines of melody that stave off resolution, hanging tantalizingly suspended until the last possible moment; but no one before Hytner had ever thought of making any of it visually explicit.

Following a stylistic approach that's characterized Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre Shakespeare since the mid-50s, Hytner devised a system of time-related imagery based on the O of the carousel itself with which he dressed the opening moments of the show. It began with the clock on the wall of the textile mill where the girls work?a giant illuminated face with moving hands before which a line of them sat working a loom. As the hands of the clock reached six, and the girls were let out of the mill, we watched the stage(itself a great revolve)become a world of circles and parts of circles?a bit of ironwork on the factory gates, the curve of a rail where the girls hung their coats, the slope of a hill, the bend of a white picket fence topping a rise. There was scarcely a curve that didn't seem to echo the perfect O of the central image or the shape of the spinning earth, and when the lights of the carousel roof came down out of the flies at the climax of the overture, and a line of tiny matching lights appeared high up along the circumfrence of the Beaumont itself, it was as though Hytner had brought the theater within the embrace of this huge, turning world.

There's nothing?nothing at all?even remotely like that in Nunn's Oklahoma!, nothing visually interesting or enlightening, nothing that causes you to view the story in a different way or gives it a deeper meaning. None of the numbers have been noticeably reorchestrated or rearranged?the way Richard Eyre's National Theatre production of Guys and Dolls in the early 80s rethought "My Time of Day" and "I've Never Been in Love Before," the way Hytner reconceived "This Was a Real Nice Clambake." With two exceptions?the overpowering Jud and a tomboyish Laurey?it's all sub-Broadway casting and line-readings (or someone's idea of them), every familiar pause or inflection, every hokey gesture in place. It's a revival one could imagine oneself without going to the theater.

A number of things about this Oklahoma! were held up as noteworthy when it played in London. Jackman's performance was one. Another was Nunn's decision to throw out the old Agnes de Mille choreography and bring on board the American director-choreographer Susan Stroman. A third was Stroman's notion of having the leading actors themselves dance the Dream Ballet, traditionally performed by dancers designated as "Dream Curly" and "Dream Laurey." (Presumably, it was to this end that Gabrielle, a former soloist with the National Ballet of Portugal, was cast. Unfortunately, she's not particularly enchanting to watch in motion. There are members of the female ensemble far lovelier and more graceful. Moreover, there's a shrill quality to her singing voice.)

But the major claim made for the production?what led critics on both sides of the Atlantic to put it in a class with the Hytner revival?was Nunn's putative discovery of a murky subtext, the idea that below the show's ebullient surface ran a "dark" undercurrent expressive of a deep fear of sexuality and growing up. Accordingly, Nunn has Laurey tomboying it up in overalls and Stroman escalates the rape-fantasy implicit in the Dream Ballet into a full-scale sexual assault. Neither choice is particularly edifying.

In London, Stroman's choreography won an Olivier award. Certainly it furnishes the show with its only high points. Best are the hoedown numbers, of course, but also the Dream Ballet is considerably less dated and cartoonish. Stroman has tried to revitalize some of the other dances as well, but often her approach has been to replace dance with dance-mime. This is nice for the kiddies but tough on the rest of us, and most of it's jokey without being particularly witty or smart. And, alas, she hasn't managed to solve the "chorus boy" problem. You never saw cowboys who looked so much like rough trade.

Anthony Ward's scenic design relies heavily on the cinematic device where you keep showing the same landscape in different sizes and perspectives, like a series of establishing shots. (It's a swell trick if you've never seen it before. Julie Taymor first used it in Juan Darien 14 years ago.) There's also the obligatory Trevor Nunn turntable and a block of elephant's-eye-level corn that came down out of the flies a few too many times for my liking.

For the rest, Andrea Martin's Aunt Eller is unmemorable, Jessica Boevers' Ado Annie downright vulgar and Justin Bohon's Will Parker too young, too pretty and much, much too gay. More distressing is the performance Nunn has elicited from the writer-performer Aasif Mandvi as the "Persian" peddler, Ali Hakim. (New York audiences may remember Mandvi's one-man, multicharacter play Sakina's Restaurant, which the American Place Theater presented some years back.) I don't know what possessed Nunn to reconceive this role, alone of all the roles in the show, or to think it wise to do so along racial lines. Perhaps he remembered the flap over Miss Saigon, 11 or 12 years ago, when he cast Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian. The idea here seems to have been to avoid casting an Anglo. Mandvi is Indian, though, not Iranian. He was born in Bombay.

I can't help wondering, in any case, if the peddler is supposed to be a real "Persian" at all. The role was originally played by the great Yiddish actor Joseph Buloff, which would seem to suggest a mere Jew masquerading as an "exotic." Certainly that would have been a better choice here. As it is, Nunn has Mandvi doing the worst sort of Stepin Fetchit acting, which really is racist, as well as being a betrayal of the actor's considerable talents.

I don't know that I buy this whole notion of a "dark" subtext to Oklahoma! anyway. I think it would be tough to find a Broadway musical whose fundamental discomfort with sex was less hidden. Nearly everything about Oklahoma! suggests a schoolyard mentality, from its childishly simple book and squabbling lovers to its all-or-nothing view of desire. Everyone in the world of the show is either virginal or promiscuous; there's no in-between. Either interest in the opposite sex is absent or else it's lewd. Because Jud has pictures of naked ladies up on the wall of the smokehouse, it follows that he must therefore be a psychopath. The gawping cowhands may giggle over Will Parker's account of a burlesque show, and Aunt Eller may feign shock at the gizmo he brings back with him from Kansas City, through which scantily clad woman may be glimpsed, but the "Little Wonder" comes equipped with a hidden blade, capable of blinding or killing a man with the push of a button. The whole show?not just its heroine?wants to blot out the specter of desire. It's all there in the score of the Dream Ballet: the music tells its own story.

Oklahoma!, at the Gershwin Theater, 222 W. 51st St. (betw. 8th Ave. & B'way), 307-4100.

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