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It Had to be Hugh

Matthew Murray marks Hugh Jackman Day with reviews of the new Oklahoma! DVD and the Broadway cast album of The Boy From Oz. logo
It hasn't been a bad season for Hugh Jackman. The film star, who began his career as a stage actor in his native Australia, received rave reviews for his performance as pop composer/performer Peter Allen in the Broadway production of The Boy From Oz, and his performance in the Royal National Theatre production of Oklahoma! is about to reach a much wider audience on DVD and through an American TV telecast (Saturday, November 22 on PBS). As it turns out, both the Boy From Oz cast album and the Oklahoma! DVD hit the stores today.

Director Trevor Nunn's Oklahoma! was a smash at London's RNT in 1998, but when it arrived on these shores in early 2002, it landed with something of a thud. The Image Entertainment DVD may finally put claims of that production's superiority to rest: The London Oklahoma! contained on this disc is not appreciably better than what was seen at the Gershwin.

Nunn's vision of the show is inordinately dark; there's a "British megamusical" feeling about it from beginning to end that is as wrong for Oklahoma! as it is right for Les Misérables. The director's distracting and unnecessary tinkering with the show's book and lyrics (both the work of master craftsman Oscar Hammerstein II) are bad enough; even more damaging is the fact that there's little trace here of the joy and humor that have caused the show to play flawlessly in this country for more than 60 years. That is why this production failed on Broadway.

Perhaps one shouldn't blame Nunn -- or modern-day British audiences -- for not being aware of what makes Oklahoma! different from, say, Sunset Boulevard, but American audiences will know immediately. It's visible in every aspect of the production: Anthony Ward's unflattering costumes and dreary, uninviting frontier set; the mostly pallid new dance music (David Krane) and orchestrations (William David Brohn, supplementing Robert Russell Bennett's originals); choreography by Susan Stroman that, given her recent Broadway work, now seems old hat.

Of course, the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein score feels as fresh and melodic as ever. The production's other problems aside, the sheer pleasure gained from hearing and seeing such wonderful songs as "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top," "People Will Say We're in Love," "Out of My Dreams," and the title number sung in context is palpable. The songs (and scenes) never get better than when Jackman's performing them; his Curly is energetic and life-affirming, often at odds with the other performers' dark takes on their roles. Josefina Gabrielle plays an older, harder Laurey than we're accustomed to, making her less immediately likable and making it difficult for us to root for her to end up with Jackman. While her singing sounds better here than it did on Broadway, she and other members of the cast seem to have benefited from after-the-fact re-recording of many of the musical numbers.

Jimmy Johnston and Vicki Simon find few laughs in the traditionally hilarious secondary roles of Will Parker and Ado Annie. Maureen Lipman's Aunt Eller is often so cold and impersonal that one can only wonder why she would be seen as the pillar of any community. Though Shuler Hensley is the right type for Jud, Curly's opponent for Laurey's affections, he plays the role as too much a brooding cipher to be serious or threatening competition. But Peter Polycarpou, returning at least partially to Joseph Buloff's original 1943 "Jewish comic" interpretation of peddler Ali Hakim, gets as much from this role as could be expected.

While the picture and sound quality of the DVD are superb, the presentation of the show itself is not. The stage production was dismantled at the National Theatre and reassembled on a sound stage, where it was filmed movie-style (the picture is letterboxed) with no audience present; clips of an audience cheering certain numbers were obviously inserted after the fact and only serve to highlight the uncomfortable quiet that pervades every scene. The DVD is inescapably untheatrical and -- unlike the highly recommended 1955 film version, directed by Fred Zinneman and starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones -- little fun to watch.

Included in the DVD package on a bonus disc is a 30-minute documentary in which Nunn, Mary Rodgers (the composer's daughter), Theodore Chapin (president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization), and performers Jackman, Gabrielle, Lipman, and Hensley discuss the production and its differences from previous incarnations of the show. Their comments, though interesting, are arguable; the show's darker elements were successfully brought out in some previous versions, and Mary Rodgers's claim that the original 1943 production was inferior to Nunn's is highly questionable. It should also be noted that neither Rodgers nor Chapin are clearly identified in this mildly interesting, occasionally self-serving documentary.


I had thought that Little Shop of Horrors would set this season's standard for the best recording to come from a less than stellar production, but Decca's cast recording of The Boy From Oz is even more impressive in that respect. In fact, it's one of the most exciting cast recordings I've heard in ages.

The reason for this should be obvious: All of the show's numbers were written and initially performed as pop songs. When separated from the disappointing libretto provided by Martin Sherman, the score is enjoyable for what it is (pop) rather than for what it's not (theater music). And with 26 tracks on the CD plus an attractive booklet containing the show's lyrics and a number of color production photos, there's plenty here to enjoy.

Of course, Jackman is a major reason for the recording's success; he may be heard in 19 of the tracks, and each one of them is a keeper. Jackman's voice is better than Allen's from a technical standpoint and his acting ability keeps his character consistent and ingratiating in every number. (This can't be easy in any show made up of songs that weren't originally written for the theater.) There's no song that Jackman doesn't sell for all its worth, whether it's big and flashy ("Bi-Coastal," "Not the Boy Next Door") or quieter and more emotional ("The Lives of Me," "Best That You Can Do").

The members of the supporting cast have much less time in which to make an impression, but most of them do well. Young Mitchel David Federan scores a major success with "When I Get My Name in Lights" (from Allen's unsuccessful Broadway musical Legs Diamond). Beth Fowler gets to sing one of Allen's most famous songs, "Don't Cry Out Loud," and she puts it over with the sincerity that she has displayed over the course of her career. On the other hand, Jarrod Emick seems almost as much a non-presence here as he does onstage in the show; he sings three quiet, introspective songs (two with Jackman) but never moves into the foreground long enough to make a strong impression. Isabel Keating and Stephanie J. Block delve deep into their vocal impersonations of Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, approximating the sound but never quite capturing the real spirit of these icons. (Interestingly, Keating seems more caricaturish on the recording than in the theater, Block less so.) Michael Mulheren's one big number, "Sure Thing Baby," doesn't appear on the CD at all; he's reduced to little more than backup duty in a reprise of "Everything Old is New Again."

Aside from the excision noted above and the cutting of a Chinese version of "Waltzing Matilda" that's sung in the show by Peter and his early singing partner Chris Bell (Timothy A. Fitz-Gerald), the score is more or less intact on the CD. Included as a bonus track is "Tenterfield Saddler," Allen's most openly autobiographical song and one of his most moving; it was used in the show's original Australian production and briefly during New York previews in the "11 o'clock number" slot, where Jackman's show-stopping "Once Before I Go" now resides. Hearing this song, with its clear description of Allen's family relationships sensitively performed by Jackman, one can only wonder why the show's creators didn't work harder to find a way to fit it into the Broadway edition of the musical. Luckily, home listeners can reprogram the CD's tracks to make the most of the songs as storytelling devices.

Whether or not you choose to rearrange the tracks, this is a disc that you'll likely want to play again and again. It's impossible not to be swept away by the excitement that bursts from the CD -- an excitement that is noticeably lacking in the theater.

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