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by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

Oklahoma! A British Import of Americana
by Rodgers and Hammerstein
The Gershwin Theater
221 West 51st Street (212) 307-4100
opened March 21,2002
Reviewed April 1, 2002 by Margaret Croyden

The much publicized Royal National Theater's production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" directed by Trevor Nunn with choreography by Susan Stroman was eagerly awaited, since it was a bang-up success in London with its all British cast. Now, after two or three years, Cameron Mackintosh, producer of such hits as "Cats," "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon," has finally opened it in New York. But not with the original cast, save for two members; all the rest are Americans. So it is hard to say that this transfer without its original cast is the cause for this lame and boring production.

I would say that the blame is more on the material, and on the British who insist on doing Americana. Why is a good question. Why would Trevor Nunn, an outstanding director of many classics and contemporary playwrights, a man who has been head of the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as the National, and who has already been made a millionaire by the success of "Cats and "Les Miz," both of which he directed, not to speak of "My Fair Lady" (London production), be interested in staging this old relic in the first place, and then to make matters worse, bring it to New York? But the ways of theater folk have always been a mystery, so there is no logical answer I can come up with except that Mr. Nunn likes what he does regardless of what I have to say.

THERE'S A BRIGHT GOLDEN YAWN AT THE GERSHWIN -- Patrick Wilson and Josefina Gabrielle in "Oklahoma!" (Photo by Michael LePoer Trench)

Most of all the show is tedious; it is slow and drawn out. The voices, miked as they are, are tinny and, when they are not, are ordinary and conventionally delivered. I saw nothing of Mr. Nunn's directorial spirit, which has been his hallmark in more serious work. The singers are not actors, they are painfully conventional, and when they need to act, their inadequacy and lack of charisma is painfully clear. The songs are still swell, old as they are, and of course, they once again illustrate the genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Every song is a gem, but maybe this show would be better off as a concert piece because the only appealing aspect of the production are the songs. There is little to look at except for some fine minimalist sets. But there are too many gimmicks likecornflower fields which are corny, an array of pretty but obtrusive lights, little toy trains, and oh yes, the usual overused stage fog for the dream sequence. Which, by the way, is derivative of every dance recital or musical I have seen: the girls in whore's costumes; Laurie, the heroine, in a white silky garment floating through the air (steals from every ballet that was ever invented), and rough and tough high-kicking cowboys doing numbers that you would expect. Susan Stroman should do less; her work is very derivative and banal; maybe she has run out of ideas because surely she is overworked.

I kept thinking that once upon a time I thought this show was wonderful. Why was I disappointed this time? Well, maybe because tastes have changed. And one expects a more sophisticated book on stage. I was amazed to discover that the dialogue was simplistic, out of date and pedestrian. The Midwestern put-on accents were irritating. Trevor Nunn may have thought he was directing a serious work; maybe that was his mistake. At its center, "Oklahoma!" is a light play with a weak story and some pretty songs. Not a world class drama. So it was unnessessary to direct every moment, every pause as if he were doing Shakespeare.

Most of the cast, as I have said, are unappealing. The one exception is the British actor Shuler Hensley, brought over to do Jud. He captures some of the character's finer points, which is more than I could say about the others. The leading lady, Josephina Gabrielle as Laurie (also from London), is colorless, but who could blame her; it's a nerdy part. Her big worry is whom she should marry. And the so-called Freudian interpretations that Nunn and Stroman inflicted on Laurie and her exaggerated production number, at the close of act one, seemed out of date and irrelevant.

I guess my biggest surprise and wonderment is the role of director Trevor Nunn. Here is a man who directed "Nicholas Nickleby," who was assistant to the great Peter Hall when Hall was the head of the RSC, and who has done numerous brilliant productions of Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard. Yet he involved himself with this kind of material. Well it is curious, but it's not my role to analyze him.

Let me hasten to tell you, however, that the house was packed, sold out, the night I saw it; the audience loved every single song and gave the actors strong applause for their work. So one might say, that according to the audience, the work is successful. And the tickets are sold. How to explain the odd tastes and reactions of Broadway theatergoers--well, that's another story for another time. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is a memoir "In The Shadow of the Flame: Three Journeys." A new book "Conversations with Peter Brook" will be published next year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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