Oklahoma!, Oh No

Written by Mimi Kramer on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


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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