Oh what a beautiful musical! Rodgers & Hammerstein's incandescent collaboration, "Oklahoma!" - a hymn to the magic of the land, the humor and humanity of people, and the simple potency of love - came up spanking new and gleaming at the Gershwin Theatre last night.
And while it's a challenge making a musical whose audience goes in humming the tunes seem newly minted, Trevor Nunn, Susan Stroman and Anthony Ward - the show's director, choreographer and designer - have done just that. Blessed, too, with a sterling cast, this "Oklahoma!" is both a reinvention and a discovery.
The production was first given by Britain's National Theatre, in collaboration with Cameron Mackintosh, three years ago, and there was a certain inherent risk in the transplantation. The National Theatre's Olivier auditorium has a formidable thrust stage, and its redefinition into the more traditional confines of a proscenium theater creates difficulties, though there seems to be more space for the dancing at the Gershwin.
Despite Ward's still mightily effective settings and true-sweat costumes, the mystery and fluidity of the National Theatre original has very slightly evaporated, but this loss is more than offset by a stronger Broadway cast.
Nunn has given the musical, and particularly Hammerstein's book, a long and thoughtful look. He's also delved into the play, Lynn Riggs' "Green Grow the Lilacs," upon which the musical was based.
The result is dramatic, in every sense. It lets the music - some of the most tuneful and buoyant ever to grace the Broadway stage - sing for itself, but it also stresses the story's underlying themes and textures.
Yes, it is still the love quest of a pert little farm girl and a brash cowhand, but Nunn has followed Hammerstein more faithfully than did the 1943 staging, not only in bringing out the expansive self-confidence of the American West at the turn of the century, but also in exploring the darker side of love.
Nunn gives us "Oklahoma!" raw - complete with a near-rape of its heroine and tension between the farmhands and cowboys - and some will miss the sugarcoating.
Yet even they can cheer Stroman's energized and dazzlingly inventive choreography, which beats the old Agnes de Mille dances by a country mile, and is performed (much better than in London) by a peerless ensemble.
These dancers don't just dance up a storm; they prance in a hurricane. Even that awful "dream ballet," for which new music has been dreamed up, and has the principals doing their own dancing rather than the ballet-surrogates used by De Mille, is more coherent and cohesive than the artsy hiatus it always was in the past.
In many ways, the outstanding performance comes from a magnificently surly Shuler Hensley as the pathologically repressed farmhand Jud Fry - who longs for the pure farm girl, Laurey - partly because the depth of his characterization is so unexpected.
The others are excellent. While Patrick Wilson's Curly doesn't have the pre-Hollywood charisma of Hugh Jackman, who played the role in London, he sings better, has enormous charm and looks like a saddle-sore cowboy.
Josefina Gabrielle remains a tomboyish delight as Laurey; Justin Bohon dances, acts and even ropes engagingly as Will Parker; Jessica Boevers' Ado Annie is the kind of girl no one could say No to; Aasif Mandvi is a comic treasure as the peddler Ali Hakim, and the jauntily effervescent Andrea Martin must surely be the definitive Aunt Eller.
And now, class, let us pause to name the virtues on which this country was built by our pioneering forebears. Hard work? Yes, of course. The desire for independence? Determination? Yes, those are good. And . . . what's that you two cut-ups are saying? Yes, you in the back row, Trevor Nunn and Susan Stroman. You say the West was won on the strength of sexual hormones? Can you support this idea?
Sure they can. In their freshly reconceived version of that most classic of American musicals, ''Oklahoma!,'' which opened last night at the Gershwin Theater, the director Trevor Nunn and the choreographer Susan Stroman find rushing erotic currents in the frontier spirit.
At its best, which is usually when it's dancing, this resurrection of Rodgers and Hammerstein's epochal show is dewy with an adolescent lustiness, both carnal and naïve, exuberant and confused. There's a glistening sense of young people eagerly groping their way through an unfamiliar landscape.
On one level, of course, that's the virgin land of Oklahoma itself, a territory yet to become a state. But the production finds a parallel world in the more shadowy realm of sexual initiation that has always beckoned the young and still keeps cash registers ringing at movie theaters.
Watching the sparking country couples dance their way through a roof-raising number like ''The Farmer and the Cowman,'' you feel a wild, procreative energy that, properly channeled, could indeed build a city or two in record time. You are also at least subliminally aware that the same force could fast turn into an equally potent weapon of destruction.
This was the sensibility that made an old show seem newborn when Mr. Nunn and Ms. Stroman first staged their ''Oklahoma!'' four years ago in London at the Royal National Theater, where Mr. Nunn was the newly appointed artistic director. You had that privileged belief that you were experiencing something like the same excitement that audiences must have felt when this groundbreaking show first opened in 1943.
That level of excitement, I must reluctantly confess, has lowered in this latest version. Mr. Nunn had hoped to bring his London cast with him to New York, a plan thwarted by the American Actors' Equity Association.
Working with a mostly new ensemble (only two original performers remain), he and Ms. Stroman have yet to achieve the same compelling fluidity or galvanizing sexual charge.
The show retains considerable charm. Rodgers's music is, again, ravishingly played, in ways that bring out darker undercurrents in what is generally remembered as a sunny score.
And Anthony Ward's harmoniously curved set, in which the sky seems to stretch into eternity, again pulses with the promise of a land on the verge of transformation. But audiences who didn't see the London version may wonder what the fuss was about.
The dance sequences provide a clue, as does the riveting performance by Shuler Hensley (who appeared in London) as Jud, the homicidal hired hand. But this ''Oklahoma!,'' while eminently agreeable, is only occasionally transporting.
In London, you understood why show-business historians invariably use the word organic in describing the impact of ''Oklahoma!'' when it first opened. (By organic, what's meant is that song and dance seem to arise naturally from the plot and to advance it, rather than serving as happy diversions.) Song seemed as natural as conversation; dance, as inevitable and essential as breathing.
The New York production, which still feels underrehearsed, doesn't have that seamlessness. There's a forced quality in the air that comes from performers who have yet to melt fully into their characters.
The comic dialogue is often exasperatingly rendered in vaudevillian broad strokes. And in the romantic leads, Patrick Wilson (late of ''The Full Monty'') and Josefina Gabrielle, in a reprise of her London role, seem more like amiable kissin' cousins than erotic soulmates.
In dance, however, ''Oklahoma!'' truly finds its feet, expressing the bold intelligence behind this revival. Ms. Stroman, whose tirelessly inventive stagecraft can also be seen in ''The Producers'' and ''Contact,'' daringly chose not to recreate Agnes de Mille's fabled choreography. Yet her work here surely comes closer to capturing the eye-opening vitality of de Mille's original dances than the usual dutiful imitations.
For Ms. Stroman's choreography vibrates with the sense of sensual restlessness in search of an outlet, touchingly offset by a youthful lack of confidence as to how to proceed. As she demonstrated in her long-running ''Contact,'' Ms. Stroman knows how to shape smooth kinetic poetry from rough-edged characters and to sketch individual personalities within an ensemble through dance.
It's telling that in the first act the guys and gals of the prairie town are most confident in sexually segregated groups. There is, on the one hand, the masculine showoff number ''Kansas City'' (charmingly led by Justin Bohon as Will Parker) and, on the other, Ms. Stroman's wholesale revamping of ''Many a New Day,'' in which the virginal Laurey (Ms. Gabrielle) leads an all-girl chorus in lessons on dealing with men.
There's an appealingly self-conscious air about both songs, a sense of wide-eyed romantic experimentation, as men dance sheepishly with other men, and women, more matter-of-factly, dance with women. When the two sexes converge in the terrific second-act opener, ''The Farmer and the Cowman,'' there's a heady, giddy electricity that seems always on the verge of sliding out of control, possibly into violence.
No character is more uncomfortably aware of this danger than Ms. Gabrielle's Laurey, first seen as an overalls-wearing tomboy who is clearly doing her best to avoid growing up. She may love the cocky Curly (Mr. Wilson), who doesn't quite know how to approach her, but she is fascinated by the surly, brutish Jud, who works for her Aunt Eller (Andrea Martin).
With her angular elegance and cool poise, Ms. Gabrielle is not a natural Laurey. A former soloist with the National Ballet of Portugal, she is a delicately expressive dancer, which is particularly evident in the dream ballet sequence, in which -- as stunningly reconceived by Ms. Stroman -- Laurey does her own dancing. (Traditionally, there is a dream alter ego.)
As an actress, she efficiently sends all the signals meant to convey Laurey's sexual ambivalence, but the performance never feels effortless. This was less obvious in London, where Curly was played by Hugh Jackman, who was just beginning his fast rise to movie stardom and who oozed a feverish virility that took the chill off Ms. Gabrielle's Laurey.
Indeed, one of the revelations of the London production was that Curly and Jud came across as flip sides of the same masculine force. Mr. Wilson doesn't begin to project the same insolence. His Curly is sweeter, more self-effacing, and it's impossible not to like him. But he doesn't have the power, of presence or voice, to carry off either Curly's desperate acts of impulse or his mood-setting solos.
Ms. Martin, best known as a comedian, is a surprisingly restrained and dignified Aunt Eller, with a couple of genuinely moving moments (as when she anxiously watches Laurey open a present from her). Mr. Bohon and Jessica Boevers, both performers of fresh-faced piquancy, haven't yet fully defined Will and Ado Annie. And Aasif Mandvi edges tediously into caricature as Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler.
Mr. Hensley, however, brings unsettling depth to a part more often tossed off as a glowering conventional villain. His resonant baritone conveys myriad shades of longing, despair and anger, turning (of all things) ''Lonely Room,'' Jud's solo, into the evening's must memorable musical moment.
In fact, this Jud is such a completely and complexly realized character that he threatens to become the show's center. The friend who accompanied me to ''Oklahoma!'' said that he felt sorry for Jud at the end and that Jud probably should have wound up with Laurey, which was surely not Rodgers and Hammerstein's intention.
It is nonetheless to the production's credit that it has room for a performance like Mr. Hensley's to blossom. Everything he does here is justified by the text, just as the darker sexual element elucidated by Mr. Nunn and Ms. Stroman is definitely there to be tapped.
''Oklahoma!'' may be remembered as the cheeriest and most wholesome of American musicals. But when two sinister pairs of hands emerge from a corn field at the beginning of Laurey's dream, the implicit metaphor feels just right.
There have always been shadows in ''the bright golden haze'' of ''Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin','' the show's opening song. This valuable if still incompletely realized production lets you see them all the more clearly.
It appears that in this topsy-turvy Broadway season -- surprisingly high in quantity and depressingly low in quality -- even the sure things aren't so sure anymore. Witness the strange fate of Trevor Nunn's acclaimed revival of "Oklahoma!," first produced in 1998 in London at the National Theater and long awaited on Broadway. Some of the magic seems to have evaporated from the production as it sat on the shelf. It remains a stylish and thoughtful staging that throws into relief some of the deeper currents in the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic; it dares to search for the richer beauty to be found in cloudy skies than sunny ones. But the odd irony is that it feels less authentic, less naturally jubilant and less moving on Yankee turf than it did on the London stage.
The show's long absence from Broadway -- it was last revived more than two decades ago -- and advance word from London assure it a healthy run, and general audiences will find plenty to enjoy here, notably Susan Stroman's kicky new choreography and, of course, that perfect jewel of a score. But the show's nagging flaws offers further proof -- as if more were needed! -- of the long odds against success in musical theater, and remind us that even the most durable musicals need to be treated with the kind of delicacy that can sometimes elude even great talents.
Certainly no one would argue that Nunn and the high-flying Stroman aren't capable of creating theatrical magic. Re-creating it is probably even harder, however, and "Oklahoma!" presents its own particular challenges. The material is so widely known -- who hasn't seen, or indeed been in, a high school production? -- that its very name conjures either moist affection or a scornful sneer. Nunn's production sought to scrape away the cornball kitsch and focus on the emotional core of the story, and in London the results were revelatory.
But here some of the casting in supporting roles rubs against the grain of the clarified, emotionally direct aesthetic that should be the hallmark of the production as a whole. Is Andrea Martin anyone's idea of a Midwestern pioneer, for example? As Aunt Eller, this talented comedienne stomps the stage with a determined hardiness and does her best to make her homespun tough talk sound authentic, but her efforts bring a cartoonish edge to the part, and the ill fit makes the role seem larger than it really is. There is a similarly garish cast to Aasif Mandvi's Ali Hakim, and the squeaky Ado Annie of Jessica Boevers (maybe she's a more natural ingenue) is lacking in distinction, too.
There is, happily, a real find among the supporting players, a lanky lad named Justin Bohon who steals pretty much every scene he's in as Ado Annie's determined suitor Will Parker. Ruddy-cheeked and limber of limb, Bohon exudes the kind of fresh, honest ardor that the show could use a lot more of. His exuberant rope dance in "Kansas City" is a highlight of the first act, and his joyous effervescence tends to draw the eye in the rest of Stroman's athletic hoedowns, too.
These do not disappoint, and when the show hits its stride in the big dance ensembles, it is impossible not to be swept up by the juicy vernacular movement that Stroman integrates into her dances. Stroman mostly eschews Agnes de Mille-style stylization, and places classical ballet movement in perky contrast to more rough-hewn choreography in her version of the show's big dream ballet, which begins enticingly with Laurey waking to find a chorus of fingers poking through corn stalks, beckoning her into her dream world.
The ballet is danced, for a change, by the actress who plays Laurey, Josefina Gabrielle, one of the show's two principals from the London production. Gabrielle is indeed a skilled dancer, but no amount of pretty arabesques can make up for the mere competence of her acting. Laurey's wholesomeness and countrified sass are certainly difficult for any actress to pull off in a world awash in irony (try watching Shirley Jones in the movie!), and she needs to be played with a kind of artless integrity that rubs some of the cuteness away. Gabrielle doesn't succeed in finding the right recipe, and as a result we never feel a real human connection between Laurey and Patrick Wilson's appealingly laid-back, handsomely sung Curly.
More happily re-creating his role from the London production is Shuler Hensley, an American actor with a deep baritone full of exciting currents. His Jud Fry remains a revelation, by no means a stock villain but a disturbingly effective portrait of a man who is tortured by the dreams of love that are sweet balm to those who can more easily turn them into reality. His visceral, even violent "Lonely Room" has an emotional force that nags at you for the duration of the evening.
Anthony Ward's spare set design -- dominated by a massive skyscape curving over a wide expanse of earth -- is an apt environment for a production that at its best helps us tune out the musical's potentially corny aspects and tune into these deeper themes. Listen to the lyrics in song after song and you realize how provisional they are -- "Many a new day will greet my eye," "People will say we're in love" -- when they're not actual fantasies ("The Surrey With the Fringe on the Top," "Pore Jud Is Dead," "Lonely Room"). The musical is about dreaming your way into a happier world and a rewarding union, about possibilities imagined and achieved and denied.
Writing about a pair of young lovers trying determinedly to turn fantasy into actuality, Rodgers & Hammerstein discovered -- or perfected, anyway -- the formula for marrying the two onstage, for breaking down the barriers between escapist musical entertainment and theater that draws its power from acknowledging the painful complexities of life. Even imperfectly realized as it sadly is here, Nunn's production should be celebrated for helping to illuminate the significance of this landmark show.