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Stephen R. Buntrock and Patty Duke in Oklahoma!
(Photo: Joan Marcus )
It's colder than a witch's whatever on the streets of New York City these days, but there's a warm glow emanating from the Gershwin Theater, where the Cameron Mackintosh-Trevor Nunn-Susan Stroman production of Oklahoma! is significantly more enjoyable now than when it opened in March 2002. The show has several new principal players, all of them laudable, but its overall improvement is probably due primarily to the fact that Nunn is no longer directly involved on a day-to-day basis.

This production was praised to the heavens when it debuted in London a few years back and Hugh Jackman's performance as Curly catapulted him to film stardom. When the Broadway transfer opened at the Gershwin Theatre, however, a number of critics and theatergoers who had seen the show in the West End said that some of the magic had been lost along the way. Not having caught the London staging, I found the Broadway version to be leaden and humorless in and of itself; happily, those flaws have now been ameliorated to a large extent. Is this because Nunn, who would seem to have little talent for directing an American musical, is no longer on hand? Or can that be a mere coincidence? Only those involved in the production know for sure, and I rather suspect that they would decline to tell us.

In terms of casting, Josefina Gabrielle's Laurey was generally considered the albatross around the neck of this production when it opened. Gabrielle acted the part well and danced it beautifully, but her singing was so problematic that there was much wonderment as to why Mackintosh et al. had imported her from the London production rather than giving some talented, young American a shot at the part. (This was the most unnecessary British theatrical import since Mackintosh insisted on bringing Jonathan Pryce over to recreate his London role of the Engineer in Miss Saigon.) The argument that Gabrielle was exceptional in her ability to do her own dancing in the show's dream ballet, rather than yield to a double, convinced no one; it now has been given the lie by Amy Bodnar, who sings the role far better than her predecessor and acts and dances it just as well. (Note: Gabrielle will be returning to the role briefly but is then scheduled to yield to Bodnar permanently.)

As Curly and Jud, respectively, Stephen R. Buntrock and Merwin Foard are worthy successors to Patrick Wilson and Shuler Hensley. Though Wilson is one of the musical theater's most talented and sexy leading men, he somehow seemed less than fully involved as Curly, whereas the handsome and equally talented Buntrock really appears to be enjoying himself. And, as good as Hensley was, Foard is an even better Jud -- he's just as nuanced in his acting, and he sings the climax of the song "Lonely Room" rather than screaming it.

Justin Bohon in Oklahoma!
(Photo: Michael LePoer Trench)
Patty Duke is pretty wonderful as the show's new Aunt Eller, her tough-on-the outside, warm-on-the-inside characterization exactly what's called for. Duke's timing is off in some of the comic bits, such as her reaction to the "Little Wonder" -- but, since timing is still a problem for the production as a whole, this is probably not her fault. Eller's relationships with the other people on stage, particularly with Curly and Laurey, are entirely believable, and that may be Duke's greatest achievement in the role.

Among the continuing principals, Aasif Mandvi as Ali Hakim is the most improved. When the show first began performances, this actor was yelling almost every line of his role -- a foolish choice that was obviously sanctioned by Nunn. Now, Mandvi's readings are much better modulated and, as a result, the audience responds to him far more warmly. (Indeed, the biggest laugh goes to him when, in response to Will Parker's proposed attempt to prevent Ado Annie from killing Ali Hakim's insufferable new wife, Mandvi says: "Mind your own business.") Similarly, Jessica Boevers, who missed almost 100 percent of Ado Annie's laughs when I saw the show last spring, now gets at least half of them. (She really scores when she replies to a girlfriend's statement that women sometimes have no need for men by saying "Yeow, but who wants to be dead?") And Justin Bohon is as winning as ever in the role of sweet, stupid Will Parker -- whether he's dancing up a storm, singing his heart out to Ado Annie, or spinning a rope like he's been doing it all his life.

One could write paragraphs on the infelicities that remain in this production. (Why do Laurey and Curley yawn when they get to the "Don't sigh and gaze at me" section of "People Will Say We're in Love?" -- don't Nunn or Stroman know the difference between a yawn and a sigh? Why are bits like Curly jumping up in alarm after sitting on a stove stretched out to the point where they aren't remotely amusing? Why does the conductor indulge in ralletandi at the end of almost every phrase of "Out of My Dreams?") The truth is that, in some ways, this Oklahoma! is still not as good as a first-class production of a great musical should be. But Stroman's choreography is inventive, Anthony Ward's costumes and sets (except for some silly miniatures) are beautiful, the Rodgers and Hammerstein score is unsurpassed, and the new cast is swell. So check it out.

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