It appears that in this topsy-turvy Broadway season — surprisingly high in quantity and depressingly low in quality — even the sure things aren’t so sure anymore. Witness the strange fate of Trevor Nunn’s acclaimed revival of “Oklahoma!,” first produced in 1998 in London at the National Theater and long awaited on Broadway. Some of the magic seems to have evaporated from the production as it sat on the shelf. It remains a stylish and thoughtful staging that throws into relief some of the deeper currents in the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic; it dares to search for the richer beauty to be found in cloudy skies than sunny ones. But the odd irony is that it feels less authentic, less naturally jubilant and less moving on Yankee turf than it did on the London stage.
The show’s long absence from Broadway — it was last revived more than two decades ago — and advance word from London assure it a healthy run, and general audiences will find plenty to enjoy here, notably Susan Stroman’s kicky new choreography and, of course, that perfect jewel of a score. But the show’s nagging flaws offers further proof — as if more were needed! — of the long odds against success in musical theater, and remind us that even the most durable musicals need to be treated with the kind of delicacy that can sometimes elude even great talents.
Certainly no one would argue that Nunn and the high-flying Stroman aren’t capable of creating theatrical magic. Re-creating it is probably even harder, however, and “Oklahoma!” presents its own particular challenges. The material is so widely known — who hasn’t seen, or indeed been in, a high school production? — that its very name conjures either moist affection or a scornful sneer. Nunn’s production sought to scrape away the cornball kitsch and focus on the emotional core of the story, and in London the results were revelatory.
But here some of the casting in supporting roles rubs against the grain of the clarified, emotionally direct aesthetic that should be the hallmark of the production as a whole. Is Andrea Martin anyone’s idea of a Midwestern pioneer, for example? As Aunt Eller, this talented comedienne stomps the stage with a determined hardiness and does her best to make her homespun tough talk sound authentic, but her efforts bring a cartoonish edge to the part, and the ill fit makes the role seem larger than it really is. There is a similarly garish cast to Aasif Mandvi’s Ali Hakim, and the squeaky Ado Annie of Jessica Boevers (maybe she’s a more natural ingenue) is lacking in distinction, too.
There is, happily, a real find among the supporting players, a lanky lad named Justin Bohon who steals pretty much every scene he’s in as Ado Annie’s determined suitor Will Parker. Ruddy-cheeked and limber of limb, Bohon exudes the kind of fresh, honest ardor that the show could use a lot more of. His exuberant rope dance in “Kansas City” is a highlight of the first act, and his joyous effervescence tends to draw the eye in the rest of Stroman’s athletic hoedowns, too.
These do not disappoint, and when the show hits its stride in the big dance ensembles, it is impossible not to be swept up by the juicy vernacular movement that Stroman integrates into her dances. Stroman mostly eschews Agnes de Mille-style stylization, and places classical ballet movement in perky contrast to more rough-hewn choreography in her version of the show’s big dream ballet, which begins enticingly with Laurey waking to find a chorus of fingers poking through corn stalks, beckoning her into her dream world.
The ballet is danced, for a change, by the actress who plays Laurey, Josefina Gabrielle, one of the show’s two principals from the London production. Gabrielle is indeed a skilled dancer, but no amount of pretty arabesques can make up for the mere competence of her acting. Laurey’s wholesomeness and countrified sass are certainly difficult for any actress to pull off in a world awash in irony (try watching Shirley Jones in the movie!), and she needs to be played with a kind of artless integrity that rubs some of the cuteness away. Gabrielle doesn’t succeed in finding the right recipe, and as a result we never feel a real human connection between Laurey and Patrick Wilson’s appealingly laid-back, handsomely sung Curly.
More happily re-creating his role from the London production is Shuler Hensley, an American actor with a deep baritone full of exciting currents. His Jud Fry remains a revelation, by no means a stock villain but a disturbingly effective portrait of a man who is tortured by the dreams of love that are sweet balm to those who can more easily turn them into reality. His visceral, even violent “Lonely Room” has an emotional force that nags at you for the duration of the evening.
Anthony Ward’s spare set design — dominated by a massive skyscape curving over a wide expanse of earth — is an apt environment for a production that at its best helps us tune out the musical’s potentially corny aspects and tune into these deeper themes. Listen to the lyrics in song after song and you realize how provisional they are — “Many a new day will greet my eye,” “People will say we’re in love” — when they’re not actual fantasies (“The Surrey With the Fringe on the Top,” “Pore Jud Is Dead,” “Lonely Room”). The musical is about dreaming your way into a happier world and a rewarding union, about possibilities imagined and achieved and denied.
Writing about a pair of young lovers trying determinedly to turn fantasy into actuality, Rodgers & Hammerstein discovered — or perfected, anyway — the formula for marrying the two onstage, for breaking down the barriers between escapist musical entertainment and theater that draws its power from acknowledging the painful complexities of life. Even imperfectly realized as it sadly is here, Nunn’s production should be celebrated for helping to illuminate the significance of this landmark show.