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A CurtainUp Review

Revisiting Oklahoma! to Meet Its Current Cast Members

For a big Broadway musical to have a big, fat run, it needs star quality understudies and an occasional infusion of new talent to keep the show fresh. The players who do hang in even as some cast members leave, can't rest on their laurels but must play their parts as if each performance was the opening.

I'm happy to report that all the above requirements were present at the recent matinee I saw -- almost a year after first seeing this production. Amy Bodnar, initially Josefina Gabrielle's understudy, currently appearing as Laurie at four of the eight performances, struck me as more than capable to take over the role by herself as she is set to do beginning February 18th. If anything, she and the new Curly, Stephen R. Buntrock, seem to generate a stronger sense of physical attraction. Buntrock is just right as the Oklahoman who's tough when he needs to be but also tender.

One of the most buzz-creating recent cast additions, Patty Duke -- yes, the same Patty Duke who made her Broadway debut at the ripe age of 12 as Helen Keller in William Gibson's The Miracle Worker -- is a pert Aunt Eller. What she lacks in Andrea Martin's experience in musicals, she more than makes up for with her obvious enthusiasm for being part of this grand old show.

Perhaps the hardest shoes to fill were those of Shuler Hensley's Jud -- the character whose darker nature was magnified by Trevor Nunn (a darkness that's less likely to bother people familiar only with the movie version in which Rod Steiger played Jud pretty darkly, than those remembering the 1943 Broadway show). At any rate, Merwin Foard brings a rich baritone and great presence to his interpretation of Jud.

Justin Bohon (Will Parker), Jessica Boevers (Ado Annie) and Aasif Mandvi (Ali Hakim) are amongst those who have remained in the cast -- animated as ever. The sets and costumes also show no sign of wear. And of course, there are all those wonderful, addictively hummable songs. -- Elyse Sommer, January 23, 2003.

--- the Original Review ---
Oh, lots of things happen to folks Sickness or bein' poor and hungry even -- bein' old and afeard to die. That's the way it is -- cradle to grave. And you can stand it. There's one way. You gotta be hearty. . . . You cain't deserve the sweet and tender things in life less'n you're tough.
--- Aunt Eller, expressing a sentiment to help anyone, anywhere to face the future.
The much heralded London revival of Oklahoma! has finally opened on Broadway where it originally made musical theater history. With only two of the London cast members (Josefina Gabrielle and Schuler Hensley) still aboard, it may not have transferred to that behemoth venue, the Gershwin, as quite the whizbang production much heralded by the Brits, but it's nevertheless a show anyone interested in musical theater will want to see, especially for the vital new choreography by Suan Stroman. Grand as Agnes DeMille's dances were, the time is ripe to let them live on film. The very fact that there are new ways to look at the characters and interpret the dance sequences is exactly why Oklahoma! has become a classic.

To begin, two caveats: 1. Oklahoma! may be bad for New York's current water shortage. This song-after-hummable-song feast will have you singing in the shower longer than is good for our depleted reservoirs. 2. If you have tickets, get thee to the Gershwin in time since the overture begins sharply at eight; also, as anyone familiar with this granddaddy of the modern book musical knows, Rodgers and Hammerstein wasted no time launching into their tuneful score. Arrive ten minutes late and you'll miss "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin' " and "The Surrey With the Fringe On Top."

Except for the many youngsters who will undoubtedly be taken to see the show, its return to Broadway, like any revival, is more like visiting a beloved old friend, than experiencing the thrill of discovery. In the case of Oklahoma! seeing the original brought the excitement of being present at the birth of the book musical in which the songs and dances were story driven and all the elements forged into a unified whole.

While Oklahoma! was a precursor of Roger and Hammerstein's more sophisticated and involved musical stories, it nevertheless added an unusual dark undercurrent to its basic romantic plot, a triangular romance set against a background of the Oklahoma territory on the cusp of statehood, when cowboys and farmers were often pitted against each other.

In case you forgot, the romantic principals are Curly a cowboy, farm owner Laurey and hired hand Jud, who's neither cowboy or farmer but an outsider. Curly and Jud's rivalry begins when both men vie to take Laurey to a box social. It culminates in a fight to the death and ends well for everybody except Jud. What makes the story memorable is the way the characters come alive as an embodiment of the American frontier spirit of community, optimism and patriotism.

Unless you've been living on Mars, listening to Curly and Laurey and Aunt Eller and all the other spirited Oklahomans is comfortingly familiar rather than the sort of Wow! that comes with hearing a song you will mentally replay every time the title is mentioned. The good news is that the familiarity with Roger and Hammerstein's songs still breeds admiration and the giant stage of the Gershwin was intended for big musicals like this and brings much of "that bright golden haze to the meadow." It extends sufficiently in all directions to accommodate the orchestra upstage where we glimpse the musicians briefly during the overture and at the end through the sky blue scrim curtain. Visually impressive as this is and the superb orchestrations notwithstanding, this does make for a somewhat distanced musical sound.

On the other hand, the opening image of Aunt Eller (played with pert, no-nonsense charm and energy by Andrea Martin) alone on that vast stage as she churns butter immediately establishes the sense of the still desolate and developing frontier. Of course that stage doesn't remain empty. Set designer Anthony Ward sends forth farm buildings, backdrops of "high as an elephant's ear" corn fields, not to mention a toy train and miniature version of the life-sized surrey in which Laurey and Curly ride off to live happily ever after. And, best of all, Susan Stroman has the dancers, a truly superb ensemble that includes some adorable and fleet-footed kids, cavort all over the place.

The radiantly innovative dream ballet, now danced by Laurey instead of a stand-in as in the original, is a triumph in its dramatic evolution from dream into nightmare. Josefina Gabrielle's dancing makes you willing to overlook that she's neither a great singer or actress. But the fifteen-minute-long ballet, is not the only choreographic highlight of the show. The "Kansas City " number sets off sparks in the first act and showcases Justin Bohon who plays Will from the subsidiary romantic triangle (Will, Ado Annie and Ali Akim, a Persian peddler, played rather too broadly by Jessica Boevers and Aasif Mandvi). In other high voltage and highly original numbers, like "The Farmer and the Cowman" and the charming "Many a New Day", Ms. Stroman has men dancing with men, women with women, and all together. Whatever the combinations, these dancers seem capable of anything from leaping over fences to twirling ropes.

As already mentioned, Ms. Gabrielle stands out more as a dancer than as an actress or singer. By the same token, Patrick Wilson who plays Curly will never make it as strictly a dancer. He gives a likeable performances and sings well. He deserves a less wiggy-like wig though, and unfortunately, he and Ms. Gabrielle don't seem as irresistibly drawn to each other as they should be. That leaves acting and singing honors to the third lead, Shuler Hensley who portrays the nominal villain of the piece, Jud with mesmerizing darkness and a thrillingly operatic baritone.

This new Oklahoma! is likely be an answer for those looking for a family show. I saw a lot of ten to thirteen-year-olds (this is for the middle-graders and up, not the toddler set!) even though I was there on a school night and the curtain doesn't go down until eleven o'clock. The families who buy three and four and five tickets instead of a pair, will be an important factor in keeping the Gershwin's over 1600 seats filled -- else, to paraphrase "pore" Jud, the producers will be singing "Pore Oklahoma! is Daid." despite the resonating fervor of the title anthem's "we know we belong to the land/and the land we belong to is grand."

For some background notes on Oklahoma!, see the yellow box after the gray boxes with the production notes and song list.
The 1999 London production CD
The 1955 film: VHS format. . . DVD

Book & Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Music: Richard Rodgers
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Choreographer: Susan Stroman
Cast: Patrick Wilson (Curly), Josefina Gabrielle (Laurey), Andrea Martin (Aunt Eller), Shuler Hensley (Jud Fry), Jessica Boevers (Ado Annie), Justin Bohon (Will), Aasif Mandvi (Ali Hakim), Michael McCarty (Carnes), Ronn Carroll (Skidmore).
Set and Costume Design: Anthony Ward
Lighting Design: David Hersey Sound Design: Paul Groothius
Musical Supervisor:David Caddick
Musical Director: Kevin Stites
Original Orchestrations: Robert Russell Bennett
Additional Orchestrations:William David Brohn
Running Time: 2 hours and 55 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Gershwin , 222 W. 51 St., (Broadway/8th Av), 307-4100
From 2/23/02; opening 3/21/02.
Mon - Sat at 8pm;Wed & Sat at 2pm -- $20-$90.

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 3/20 press performance.
Musical Numbers
Act One

  • Overture
  • Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'/Curly
  • The Surrey with the Fringe on Top/Curly, Laurey, Aunt Eller
  • Kansas City/Will, Aunt Eller and the Boys
  • I Cain't Say No/Ado Annie
  • Many a New Day/Laurey and the Girls
  • It's a Scandal!It's a Outrage!/Ali Hakim and Farmers
  • People Will Say We're In Love/Curly and Laurey
  • Pore Jud is Daid/Curly and Joel
  • Lonely Room/Jud
  • Out of my Dreams/Laurey, Girls, Dream Figures
  • Ballet/Laurey, the Girls and Dream Figures
Act Two

  • The Farmer and the Cowman/Carnes, Aunt Eller, Curly, Will, Ado Annie, Slim and Ensemble
  • All or Nothin'/Ado Annie, Will and Girls
  • People Will Say We're in Love (reprise)/Curly and Laurey
  • Oklahoma/Curly, Laurey, Aunt Eller, Ike, Fred and Ensemble
  • Finale Ultimo/Entire Company
Background Notes On Oklahoma!
  • Rodgers and Hammerstein based the musical on Lynn Riggs' Green Grow the Lilacs. Lorenz Hart, Hammerstein's original partner disqualified himself from the job feeling that he could not write lyrics for an outdoor play "set on a radiant summer morning several years ago."
  • Their major initial technical problem was that their script did not call for the usual opening chorus which led to having the opening number first heard offstage, as it is in the current production.
  • Backers did not rush forward to invest in the show originally known as Away We Go! A New Haven tryout brought a much quoted estimate of its future (variously attributed but apparently from gossip columnist Walter Winchell's right-hand woman): "No legs, no jokes, no chance!" According to Philip Langner, whose parents founded the Theater Guild which he now heads, another title once considered was Down on the Strip and it was his grandparents' meeting on an Oklahoma stagecoach that had a lot to do with the final title.
  • The show opened on Broadway on March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theater and ran for 2, 212 performances, the longest running musical of its time. As with The Producers now in that same theater, there was a tremendous rush for tickets. The then mayor, Fiorello La Guardia called regularly for tickets for distinguished New York visitors. Eleanor Roosevelt brought all sorts of dignitaries. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor sat in the first-row balcony on repeated Saturday matinees. It was also a send-off event for many ordinary soldiers on their way overseas.
  • Oklahoma! marked the beginning of a long and successful collaboration that included Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific and The Sound of Music. During its first ten years it made a profit of five million dollars on an $83,000 investment
  • The initial cast featured Alfred Drake as Curly, Joan Roberts as Laurey, Howard Da Silva as Jud, Betty Garde as Aunt Eller and Celeste Holm as Ado Annie. (In the oral history It Happened On Broadway, Holm is quoted as saying "It's a terrible thing to say, but I've never ever seen anyone else do Ado Annie as well as me " -- a distinction she is in no danger of losing to the current Annie) The production was directed by Rouben Mamoulian and choreographed by Agnes De Mille.
  • Oklahoma! seeded a decade long U.S. Tour, a run in London's West. To date there have been over 30,000 productions in more than a dozen languages. The current production is the third Broadway Revival, the last one in 1979- at the Palace Theatre.
  • The 1955 film version starring Shirley Jones, Gordon MacRae and Rod Steiger is still a video best renter and seller (see above link).
  • Honors earned include a special Pulitzer Prize, two Academy Awards, an honorary Grammy and a special Tony Award. In 1993 it became the first musical commemorated by a U.S. postage stamp.
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