STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Nunn's Oklahoma In London

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Nunn's Oklahoma In London The logo doesn't promise innovation. We've all seen the word "Oklahoma!" made from a lariat rope on many a community theatre's poster. Alas, that, too, is what you see when you're outside London's Royal National Theatre.

The logo doesn't promise innovation. We've all seen the word "Oklahoma!" made from a lariat rope on many a community theatre's poster. Alas, that, too, is what you see when you're outside London's Royal National Theatre.

Nevertheless, what you've heard is true. Trevor Nunn's revival of Oklahoma! isn't just O. K. -- it's a K-O.

Many have dismissed Oklahoma! with the easy criticism that "the big crisis is whether or not Laurey will go to the box-social with Curly or Jud." Nunn doesn't see it that way. To put it in contemporary terms (and the story works on exactly those), he has Laurey and Curly constantly playing mind games with each other.

Too bad, for they're both attractive people. Curly, as essayed by Hugh Jackman, has a smile that resembles Tommy Steele's, without, happily enough, going that far. Laurey -- a brunette, by the way, as played by Josefina Gabrielle -- has a face not unlike a young Tyne Daly's. They do appear to be the odds-on favorites to be named "cutest couple" in the 1905 Indian Territory Yearbook.

But they aren't attractive in the way they treat each other. When Curly makes mention of Laurey's perhaps baking his favorite pie, the lass none too-casually tosses the one she's made flat on the ground. That sends Curly flirting with Gertie Cummings -- until he hears the laugh Rebecca Thornhill gives her. It's so outrageously long and awful, but we enjoy watching the thought dawn on Curly that, if he selects her in lieu of Laurey, he'll have to hear it for the rest of his life.

It's not enough to have him drop his ruse of playing hard-to-get. Laurey is equally intractable. She doesn't just sing "Many a New Day," but strongly teaches it to her friends as a lesson, using a horse quirt as a pointer.

That brings us to the famous Dream Ballet. In his stage directions, Hammerstein wrote that at its conclusion, when a gussied-up Jud shows up to take Laurey to the social, she should look "wistfully back at Curly." Nunn instead has her finally realize that time's up, the teasing game is over, and she could now be in real trouble when alone with Jud.

Hammerstein then envisioned Curly "stand(ing) alone, puzzled, dejected, and defeated." Nunn has him look genuinely afraid of what could happen to the woman he loves now that she's in Jud's hands. Both our leads suddenly realize they shouldn't have played around, that honesty is the only viable policy when people really love each other. Suddenly, Oklahoma! warns would-be lovers that if they play cat-and-mouse, they could pay a big price.

That's why the elimination of Dream Curly, Dream Laurey, and, for that matter, the more formal ballet we've always seen, are all so crucial in maintaining the high stakes, making it less of an "entertainment." Jackman and Gabrielle's ability at dance passes muster. Each should, for not long after Oklahoma! opened, the era of separate singing and dancing choruses came to an end, and those with musical theatre ambitions now had to become singer-dancers. So while we can infer that Agnes De Mille's original dancers showed much classical training, Susan Stroman -- though eschewing gimmicks -- makes it as much a "number" as a ballet, underlined by dance music arranger David Krane's nifty ragtime-ization of"Surrey."

Of course, had Dream Curlys been eliminated some years back, then Howard Crabtree might not have been cast in his high school's production ofOklahoma! --which might have meant he wouldn't have become interested in musical theatre -- and then we wouldn't have had When Pigs Fly.

And one other point: Given that Laurey doesn't like the way her dream turns out -- Curly dies, Jud emerges victorious -- shouldn't this be more accurately be called a "Nightmare Ballet"?

Director Nunn adds some other "real" touches. Will Parker is still cute and diminutive, but he's totally unaware of it. He sees himself as a regular cowboy, and takes himself very seriously, as, of course, he should. He's a good ol' boy, but enough of a gentleman that, before he kisses Ado Annie, he removes his chewing tobacco. He has refinement!

Aunt Eller, too, is more real, slowly rubbing her painful joints after churning butter. She seems to have more to do in this production, because she tries so hard to make peace between the two young 'uns. But Nunn even has her struggle in showing emotion. When she gives Laurey her wrapped gift, she thrusts it at her, and looks away embarrassed for being so sentimental. (And though Aunt Eller insists in "The Farmer and the Cowman" that she's "no better than anybody else," Maureen Lippman certainly is.)

Vicki Simon's Ado Annie has an Audra MacDonald smile, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the three-time Tony-winner in the role if this production comes to our shores. And what a catfight Simon and Thornhill endure! Ado Annie hits Gertie with a plate; Gertie pushes Annie into a post. Ironically enough, Curly and Jud's fight proves terribly artificial -- lots of smacks that clearly hit nothing but air, as the actors try to pretend they've been hit.

Much has been made of the show's 3:10 length. I felt as if each act were about 15 minutes long.

So is this Oklahoma! ultimately as impressive as Nicholas Hytner's Carousel revival? Of course not. Oklahoma! isn't as moving a show, because it's about courtship (Curly and Laurey don't marry until the final scene), while Carousel tells of the harsh realities that follow with marriage and children. (Billy and Julie are already husband and wife by the second book scene). Oklahoma! could never pack as powerful a wallop.

After every last bow at the curtain calls, the cast sings as its final line, "We've gone about as fur as we c'n go!" That's literally and figuratively true. But I left the theatre believing Trevor Nunn had taken Oklahoma! as far as it could ever go,too.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger.
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com