In 1992 at the Royal National Theater, Nicholas Hytner reclaimed “Carousel” as a tale of almost unbearable sorrow and wisdom allied to a score whose pleasures just wouldn’t quit. Trevor Nunn, in his musical debut at the National, makes a nearly comparable case for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s more popular — though perhaps less probing — “Oklahoma!,” written two years prior to “Carousel.” Nunn’s achievement is such that he need put no particular spin on a 1943 American warhorse that the National’s tourist contingent will no doubt know by heart. Instead, he simply applies the rigorous attention to text that has marked all his best work and leaves the rest to some astonishing American collaborators — the choreographer Susan Stroman and a sensational, operatically trained newcomer named Shuler Hensley chief among them.
If you never thought the romantic triangle among Curly (Hugh Jackman), Laurey (Josefina Gabrielle) and Jud Fry (Hensley) could at various times recall “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Peter Grimes” and even “Porgy and Bess,” it’s because few production of this musical bear the imprint of a director of Nunn’s experience. Perhaps it takes someone of Nunn’s seasoning to treat a potentially folksy show head on, without patronizing the material or the audience.
Whatever the reason, the thrills of the evening are inextricably linked to the abiding truthfulness of it. This remains the most rousing and optimistic of shows, but I’ve never before seen an “Oklahoma!” where the rexuberance of that exclamation point seemed so hard-won.
The production veers toward tragedy from the entrance of Hensley’s brooding, begrimed farmhand Jud, whose glowering countenance acknowledges few of the “beautiful mornin’s” of which his rival, Jackman’s open-faced cowboy Curly, is forever singing. It’s easy to dismiss Jud as a hulking simpleton with, as is remarked of him, “a heart as big as all outdoors.”
But glimpsed in his cramped home poring over pictures of women when he hungers for the real thing, this Jud bears more than a trace of Benjamin Britten’s anguished, repressed Grimes, coupled with the thwarted nobility of spirit that could be said to define the Porgy of Gershwin’s masterwork that preceded Rodgers & Hammerstein’s by eight years. (It helps that the production restores Jud’s defining solo, “Lonely Room.”)
In an English theater debut audiences will be talking about for years, Hensley plays every moment of Jud’s “crawlin’ and festerin’ ” existence as if his life depended on it, which, of course, it does. This is a man left out of the pioneering America that Hammerstein’s libretto celebrates, who looks as if he might be more at home in that other Oklahoma-set (at least partly) classic, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Jud’s specific bad luck is to have comically paraded in front of him a funeral — in a deliciously performed “Poor Jud Is Daid” — that he will end up cruelly undergoing well before time.
And yet, death must be a release for someone who cries, “I can’t help it; I can’t never rest,” even as the rest of the community is surrendering to the idyll of a box social. Among other things, his fate suggests the indebtedness of the story to that favorite English topic, class, when Jud spits out a resentful, “You better, you so much better.”
No one in the cast betters Hensley, though it’s hard to imagine a more immediately charming Curly than Jackman, an Australian performer inheriting a role that in lesser hands can seem oddly smarmy: He’s as pliable, the staging suggests, as Jud is rigidly doomed, and Jackman makes an appealing (and beautifully sung) case for a man who won’t be left behind by the winds of change in “this here crazy country.”
There’s a trace of Benedick and Beatrice to his defensive banter with Gabrielle’s Laurey, a woman beset by indecision who — the production suggests — needs to achieve the same personal self-definition that will mark the Indian territory itself as it slides into statehood.
Though she has a pleasant enough (if somewhat syrupy) voice, Gabrielle is primarily a dancer. So it’s little surprise that a somewhat inexpressive performance takes wing in the dance numbers. The ballet that closes the first act replaces Agnes de Mille’s historic contribution with a vintage piece of signature Stroman that begins with hands poking out from behind a field of corn to lure Laurey into a dream-cum-nightmare danced by the three principals, not their traditional alternate fantasy selves.
Elsewhere, Stroman allows Jimmy Johnston’s bubbly Will Parker to lasso the audience’s affections (and himself) during “Kansas City,” while second-act opener, “The Farmer and the Cowman,” makes a dizzying whole out of a land that, the song reminds us, for all its freedom contains no lack of fences.
It’s that suggestion of divisiveness — of the darkness beyond the turquoise front curtain and mammoth blue sky of Anthony Ward’s typically elegant, clean sets — that shadows this “Oklahoma!,” even as one is moved by librettist Hammerstein’s generosity towards all his characters, including an Aunt Eller (gamely played by a miscast Maureen Lipman) far less starchy than she first appears. (Peter Polycarpou’s itinerant peddler, Ali Hakim, turns out to be a fast-talking mensch.)
Is that to freight “Oklahoma!” with more reality than it can bear? Not at all. It’s just that in a show about dreamers, Nunn has done what no one dared dream, paying equal homage to the great outdoors and — in the rapturous world of Rodgers & Hammerstein — to that even greater heart that most of us keep locked within.