Gershwin Theater, NYC - June 2002

Review by John Kenrick

Sure it's OK – but not much more than that.

Thanks to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, it does not take a genius to make Oklahoma work. This show is so artfully constructed that it almost guarantees an audience a good time. All that is required is a talented cast and a fairly straightforward production. Producer Cameron MacIntosh has put together an Oklahoma worthy of any decent regional company. But for Broadway? Not quite. If you have never seen this show on Broadway before, you will probably enjoy this production and wonder what the hell I am complaining about. Those who have seen previous incarnations will probably have the same reservations I do. At $100 a seat, being good is not necessarily good enough.

Is this production entertaining? Absolutely! What American audience could resist the romance of "People Will Say we're in Love," or the electric sweep of the thrilling title song? And the deceptively simple tale of a farm girl torn between her pride and her love for a handsome cowboy has a time-tested charm that has seduced the world for almost sixty years. But even the best material loses power when the director and designers are uninspired and one of the key roles is painfully miscast.

When Actors Equity insisted that this production be done with a mostly American cast, Macintosh insisted that it would take time to teach Americans how to do the show properly. So it is a tad surprising to see that director Trevor Nunn's staging brings no revelations. Aside from sticking the leading lady in dirty overalls, his staging is fairly pedestrian, and making a few harmless changes in the book and score hardly rates as a re-thinking of the piece. In far too many cases, Nunn misdirects his cast, wasting the import of lines and lyrics. Susan Stroman's new choreography is perfectly adequate, but it does not even begin to match the impact of Agnes DeMille's original work.

Anthony Ward's sets are minimalist (with a delightful miniature train and a wall of elephant-eye high corn thrown in as highlights), but his costumes are so historically accurate that they are often banal. The visual savior comes with David Hersey's often breathtaking lighting, which provides moments of real visual beauty.

No amount of creative lighting could make Jessica Boevers less of a disaster as Ado Annie. Imagine someone so inept that not one of Annie's comic lines or lyrics wins a decent laugh? What a waste! Boevers has no clue how to handle this material, misaiming her energies with heartbreaking consistency. Whatever her talents may be, they are not in evidence here. I'm not blaming her – the producer and director had no business casting the wrong person in such an important role. Shame on them.

Two London cast members give us mixed indications as to what the fuss was all about on the other side of the Atlantic. Josefina Gabrielle received an Olivier award as Laurey – which tells you how mediocre British standards have become. While she is certainly an elegant dancer with wholesome good looks and genuine acting talent, her singing is merely competent. Shuler Henseley plays the glowering Judd with extraordinary humanity, but makes the character so unattractive that I cannot begin to imagine why Laurey has even a hint of trouble deciding between him and her beloved Curly. He provides some of the strongest singing in the cast, making Jud's "Lonely Room" as haunting as it can be.

The disarming Justin Bohon makes a winning Will Parker, backing-up his stylish song and dance talents with a fair bit of rope trickery -- this newcomer is a talent worth watching. Assif Mandvi depicts peddlar Ali Hakim with such gleeful magnetism that he almost steals the show, and Andrea Martin is simply perfect as Aunt Eller. Whether reassuring Laurie or breaking up battling farmers and cowboys, she wins our hearts in every scene. As Curly, Patrick Wilson delivers the performance this production will be remembered for. He is that rarest of creatures, a bona fide musical leading man. Easy masculine grace, a golden voice and obvious sex appeal make Wilson the perfect star. From the moment he enters singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," he gives this Oklahoma its heart and soul. If you plan on catching this production, be sure to do it while Wilson is on hand.

It has been a quarter century since Oklahoma's last visit to Broadway. Even in a less than perfect production, it still works its charms and reminds us what a truly great musical can offer. As we celebrate Richard Rodger' centennial, it is grand to have one of his (and Hammerstein's) classics on hand to remind us why his legend lives on.

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