This article was updated on Tuesday, jan. 25.
A sprightly Oscar Hammerstein lyric, featured in “Oklahoma!” tells us, “Everything’s up to date in Kansas City,” but the same can’t be said for the show’s dated, corn-covered book. Groundbreaking in 1943 for making musical numbers arise organically from situations, the now-familiar integration of score and story isn’t enough to distract from puerile plotting. Even the undeniable pleasure of hearing Rodgers & Hammerstein’s infectious, immortal score is dimmed by dialogue-heavy scenes that tell in 10 minutes what could easily be absorbed in two. Equally problematic are the story shifts, from aw-shucks humor to dark melodrama, so extreme here that they often seem caught in a time warp, as though “The Beverly Hillbillies” and Alfred Hitchcock had mated.
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This Broadway/LA presentation, adapted from 1998’s Royal National Theater production directed by Trevor Nunn, compromises Richard Rodgers’ rich harmonies with a small, thin-sounding orchestra — a fault particularly noticeable at the 2,750-seat Pantages — but “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” retains its pull, and cowboy Curly (Jeremiah James, in the role Hugh Jackman triumphed with in England) sings it with verve. Before long, he’s engaged in verbal scrapping with Laurey (Julie Burdick), and although he wryly comments, “If she liked me any more, she’d sic the dogs on me,” we know that love lurks beneath their battling. What isn’t felt, at the start or later on, is a chemical current between the two.
Andrew Lebon, as Jud, represents the tale’s grim side, giving the psychopathic-cowhand role flashes of sensitivity as well as frightening force. Aided by Ted Mather’s stark lighting, his confession to Laurey, “I remember everything you ever done … every word you ever said,” enables him to transcend the show’s cornpone goofiness and become more than a maniacal villain.
Another inspired piece of casting is Pat Sibley as Aunt Eller. Under Fred Hanson’s direction, Sibley scrupulously avoids the part’s saccharine pitfalls. She projects admirable strength, dominates the second-act opener, “The Farmer and the Cowman,” and pushes quickly past such meant-to-be-funny lines as, “She says she’s only 18 — I’ll bet you she’s 19.”
Ginger Thatcher’s choreography (re-created from Susan Stroman’s concepts), serves the material, yet no single dance — including the “Out of My Dreams” ballet — hits heights of exhilaration. The best contributions are embodied by mock-macho, rope-twirling Will Parker (Daniel Robinson), who incorporates characterization with comedic movement. Robinson sinks his teeth into “All er Nothin’, ” in which he warns promiscuous girlfriend Ado Annie (Carrie Love) that she can’t kiss every guy she fancies, primarily traveling salesman Ali Hakim (Sorab Wadia). Love belts out “I Cain’t Say No” vigorously, and Wadia is amusing when faced with marrying her and crying out, “Marry her? On PURPOSE?”
Except for Sibley and Lebon, accents are laid on with molasses thickness. Sound is uneven, sometimes effective (benefiting James’ “Surrey With the Fringe On Top”), often too loud (especially when Abbie Brady lets loose with her shrieking, intentionally abrasive laugh). In general, it’s too treble; deeper tonal quality would enhance the male voices in particular.
The second act is more compelling, ranging from Curly and Jud’s heated competition for Laurey’s lunch basket to the wedding fight between the two men that results in Jud’s fatal fall on his own knife. But the same unruly, erratic switches from farce to tragedy are evident throughout. This adaptation of the show keeps digging for depth, and efforts to unearth additional complexities only overload the story and divert attention from the legendary music.