The curtain is barely up on the farmhouse facade and painted wheat fields of "Oklahoma!" when the voice of the approaching Curly can be heard singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'." And in no time at all he's mesmerizing Laurey and Aunt Eller, and us, with his description of "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top," after which Will Parker and the boys come busting on with a gleeful account of the wicked doings in "Kansas City," and then Ado Annie appears to sing "I Cain't Say No," Laurey and the girls primly inform us that "Many a New Day" will dawn before they mourn a bygone romance, and very shortly Curly and Laurey are rapt in the "People Will Say We're in Love" duet.
Whew! Small wonder that the opening-night crowd at the first and greenest of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals looked stunned at intermission on that spring evening in 1943. Such a lovely outpouring of song! Such profligacy of talent as the master lyricist and master composer leaned over the same piano for the first time!
The revival that opened last night at the Palace is first-class. Laurence Guittard's fine light baritone and engaging presence make him an ideal Curly, and the whole town should fall in love with the raven-haired, creamy-skinned Christine Andreas' startlingly pretty and exquisitely sung Laurey. Harry Groener is a show-stopping Will Parker, a hoofer and light comedian par excellence. Christine Ebersole is a blonde cloud of dizzy charm as Ado Annie, and Mary Wickes is an endearingly caustic Aunt Eller. Add to these Bruce Adler's wheedling, pint-sized Ali Hakim, Martin Vidnovic's strong, menacing Jud Fry, and a large chorus that joins the principals to make the title song sweep through the house like a gale in the final scene. What more could one ask?
Less. Not less songs. No, never that, not with those gems. But surprisingly, less dancing. Not less of the kick-up-your-heels variety in "Kansas City" and "The Farmer and the Cowman," which opens the second half. But less of the hand-fluttering, skipping balletic stuff that seemed so classy first time out. Today, Agnes de Mille's long dream sequence arising out of the lovely waltz "Out of My Dreams" - the sequence that brings the first half to a close with dancers acting out a nightmarish involvement of the lovers and Jud while the corps de ballet flits about, and that seemed so tony originally - strikes one as superfluous and dragging, especially following on Jud's bitter lament "Lonely Room" in his gloomy smokehouse quarters.
We don't mind the corn being as "high as an elephant's eye" in the book. It's so good-natured and zippy that even pore Jud's death can't put much of a damper on the wedding party and accompanying shivaree. And the wonderful songs keep sweeping the book aside to carry the story along by themselves. There's more than enough fine dancing (Gemze De Lappe has restored Agnes De Mille's original choreography) in the long evening without the by-now platitudinous balletic excursions.
William Hammerstein has staged the classic brightly and lovingly, and the simple, just-right scenery (we were never meant to really see the great outdoors and fields of waving wheat, which is why this writer sedulously avoided the film version), credited to Michael J. Hotopp and Paul De Pass, looks remarkably like the original. Bill Hargate's costumes are precisely right, and Thomas Skelton has lit the show becomingly. Musical director Jay Blackton keeps the pit musicians on their toes.
Forget the "landmark musical" cachet associated with "Oklahoma!," however accurate. See it for the fun of it, for its freshet of great songs, and for its splendid cast.
Yes, the corn still stands as high as an elephant's eye, but the lovely thing is that it still isn't corny. A woman is churning butter outside an old farmhouse. A voice is heard singing: "Oh what a beautiful mornin'!" A cowboy enters - still singing, now even making that rather dubious claim about corn and the elephant, and the Broadway musical stops dead in its tracks, and starts right over again. And still the moment is magic.
It is, of course, the beginning of a landmark musical Oklahoma! with music by Richard Rodgers and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein 2d, which opened last night in a spanking new production at the Palace Theater. What music! What sheer good fun! And what wonderfully assertive innocence, what an asseveration of America the proud, America the beautiful, America the unlimited!
The wooing of the farmgirl Laurey by the cowboy Curly, helped by the vinagary good nature of Aunt Eller, and hindered by the vile machinations of the hired-hand, Jud. It ends happily. Especially for the audience.
The thing that strikes everyone - except the tone-deaf and stone-deaf - about Oklahoma! is the score. Virtually every number is a hit - something that was never achieved before, Showboat and Porgy and Bess coming closest, and has only been achieved once after, with My Fair Lady.
But in a way what was more important, and what made Oklahoma! such a landmark in the musical theater, was its new homogenity, its specific blend of music, drama and dance, and its new seriousness. Some of this was at least foreshadowed in Rodgers and Hart's controversial Pal Joey, and Oklahoma! was the breakthrough.
Curiously enough when the show was new in 1943 the critics of the time liked it well enough but had little idea of its implications or revolutionary spirit. Stark Young, for example, wrote "...reminds us at times of a good college show..." and when Oklahoma! made it to London four years later, although the reviews were more enthusiastic, the then senior reviewer, James Agate, was still able to sum it up as: "Bouquet, yes; body, no."
The present production is not exactly a reproduction of the original, but it is not too far removed. The new scenery by Michael J. Hotopp and Paul De Pass looks pretty much like the old, as do the new costumes by Bill Hargate.
The new version - I hate the word revival, no one ever talks of a revival of Rigoletto - has been directed with a sort of traditional pizzazz by William Hammerstein, the author's son. Agnes de Mille's choreography has been recreated by Gemze de Lappe, and Miss de Mille has personally supervised the entire show.
This is totally appropriate, for de Mille's contribution to the music's entire fabric was, and is, essential. The curious thing is that the long ballet sequence, that special dream ballet Laurey Makes Up Her Mind, is the one part of the musical that seems dated. The rest of the dancing, beautifully melded into the production is exemplary and was, in its time, trail-blazing.
Perhaps the best news of this Oklahoma! is that it has all the zest of an original. This is largely due to a young and talented cast. Laurence Guittard with his strong baritone voice and easy charm is one of the best Curlys I have ever encountered - you can almost see his horse. Christine Andreas, round, plump, bouncy and wholesome makes a lovely Laurey, Harry Groener and Christine Ebersole are hayseed delights as Will Parker and the cannot-say-no girl, Ado Annie Carnes, Martin Vidnovic makes an impressively malevolent Jud (recalling Rod Steiger in the movie) and Bruce Adler is cheerfully perky as the unputdownable peddler, Ali Hakim.
The most authentic performance, however, comes from Mary Wickes as Aunt Eller. Apart from the fact that she looks remarkably like Miss de Mille herself and has almost de Mille's style and manner, her pioneer presence and no-nonsense lovability illuminates the whole show.
So there it is. A show to freshen your heart and make your next morning wonderful. As the old song has it: "You're doing fine Oklahoma - Oklahoma, OK!"
There was a considerable age-range in the audience with which I saw the freshly revived "Oklahoma!" at the Palace. As I went up the aisle at intermission, I noticed one and all were beaming. Some were smiling because they remember. The others were smiling because they will.
"Oklahoma!" remains the gently enchanting sampler it is because, after its hundreds of imitations have come and mostly gone, it is utterly un-self-conscious about what it is doing. Rodgers and Hammerstein weren't necessarily determined to change the face of musical comedy forever when they took their curtain up on a woman at a butter-churn listening idly to a strolling cowhand sing a beguiling salute to the morning with no musical accompaniments at all.
They went to work as they did because they were persuaded that this was the way a particular woman, and a particular cowhand, in a particular piece of wide-open territory would behave: Lazily, spontaneously, free as the faint breeze that seemed to stir the leafy shadows at the top of the barn, near the window. And besides, it was a beautiful morning.
In fact, you can still see - and be charmed by - remnants of the kind of musical that "Oklahoma!" replaced spotted here and there among its didoes. One of the show's most radical innovations, of course, was Agnes de Mille's substitution of ballet's freedoms for the old heel-toe tap routines, done in deadpan precision.
Yet, though this is the enterprise in which Miss de Mille sent one trio bobbing and pecking its way across stage as though it were composed of either churchgoers or chickens, while another took straight to the air in an exhilarating promise of a new day to come, one of the evening's earliest numbers contains a fast tap - and a tap with a ragtime beat to it, at that.
The dance is done by Harry Groener, who plays Ado Annie's loyal Will Parker, and it jumps from the floor like so much sudden popcorn, generated by the jolly heat of "Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City." The performer is probably this revival's most unexpected discovery: Singing with highly nasal hayseed enthusiasm, letting the shock of hair on his forehead bounce in erratic counterpoint to his swiftly triggered feet, he is both a fine young clown and a reasonably authentic bronco buster.
And his outburst here reminds us that the Rodgers-Hammerstein score extends all the way from the familiar musical-comedy format of "All or Nothing" to the dour comic innovation of "Pore Jud Is Daid," just as choreographer de Mille's enthusiasms include lariat-spinning as well as the nightmarish sexuality and violent death of the climactic first-act ballet. The truth of the matter is that "Oklahoma!" owns the best of both worlds, old and new.
An effective revival of the watershed musical no doubt wants to be cast in the same way: With some players old enough to have seen it before, keeping it in honest touch with its origins; and with some who are young enough to believe in it all over again. Director William Hammerstein and his colleagues have, for the most part, cast this one happily.
Nowhere happier than in the Laurey. The moment Christine Andreas popped out of the shingled farmhouse to torment Curly with her on-again, off-again promise to let him take her to the "evening social," I realized with a start that all my earlier Laureys have been blondes. It's been a law: Laurey is a blonde, a fragile, fetching, gently wavering blonde. From now on, I vote brunette. Miss Andreas, last seen in the area as the up-from-Cockney Eliza of "My Fair Lady," is a revelation in the role. She's not only a tease; beautiful as she is, she's tough-minded.
It's not only her hair that's dark. There is a real streak of the potential wanton in her, enough to justify her wild curiosity about the slimy likes of loner Jud Fry. She knows she's "worth being gazed at," she's temptress and tempted both, and she paves the way for the "dream" ballet with an emotional threat I've never come across before. She's trouble, this girl; adorable trouble. What's more, she means her lyrics; a girl could be forgiven anything for that. I might add that, at showdown-time, she can give Jud Fry as good as she gets. Stunning.
Martin Vidnovic is an unusually plausible "pore Jud" as well, not an aging lout in his undershirt but a festering promise somewhere west of Eden. Laurence Guittard's Curly and Christine Ebersole's Ado Annie are on the perfectly acceptable side, but not more than that. The former makes the most of his belted "People Will Say We're in Love," in tandem with Miss Andreas, though he tends to artificialize the territorial idiom ("wimmern" for "women" becomes a virtual tongue-twister), and Miss Ebersole, an appealing redhead, hasn't quite rethought "I Cain't Say No." She's still got to convince herself we don't know the song's guilt, even if we do.
As for those who may have been around long enough to have seen, heard, played in or otherwise made the acquaintance of the original production, Mary Wickes - as Aunt Eller - is just dandy. If Miss Andreas, say, is enough of a puppy to take everything in earnest good faith, Miss Wickes is enough of a trouper to summon up what the original audiences took on faith. Quite apart from the hands-on-hips "Hmphs!" that she regularly makes her own, she actually drives suspense into the open-air auction, under strings of Japanese lanterns, of the girls' basket lunches. Impossible? Not at all, not with the wary, tart-tongued actress rigging the bidding and keeping a sharp eye on the menacing Jud.
And the dances, bless us, have been refashioned by Agnes de Mille in person - with the assistance of the unforgettable Gemze De Lappe - which means that when a girl runs in abrupt, tiptoe steps to place her head submissively against a male chest, then extends one leg to begin a twirl to the floor and a breathtaking lift to the man's shoulder, the whole mysterious sequence becomes surprising again. We know it by heart, perhaps, but where better? An unerring aim sends it right straight home.
A few quick cautions about a winning and welcome evening. Although the new scenery by Michael J. Hotopp and Paul De Pass is serviceable in its frequent use of earth colors and its occasional strong contrast, it's not likely to satisfy those who still carry about with them an image of Lemuel Ayers's originals. And the entertainment is now too long, by a good 20 minutes. Bruce Adler is skilled enough as the peddler Ali Hakim, but I have a hunch some of the snipping might well be done in his later, noticeably anticlimactic scenes.
No one should touch the music, though. All that incredible music.