Oklahoma, Oy Vey!

That Oklahoma! should be such a little wonder wasn't enough for the human propensity to ecstasize and theorize out of proportion. The real tribute to the show's quality is that we can still bear it at all, after six decades of hot air about it. What we need is some enterprising soul willing and able to recapture the original's crafty straightforwardness and good sense, but no such luck. Instead, like the other Little Wonder that Will Parker bought in Kansas City, Oklahoma! now has to possess hidden violence. So we get Trevor Nunn's production, in which the book is lingered over, while the songs are either muttered down into naturalistic expostulation or blown up into operatic reverence. The last section of "Lonely Room," marked "Moderato" in the score, is taken so slowly it feels longer than the Clock Scene in Boris Godunov—and the title role in Boris, a haunted, misunderstood monarch, is exactly what Shuler Hensley seems to be playing as Jud. The tragic hero of Nunn's production, he's granted much more sympathy than either Patrick Wilson's brash Curly or Josefina Gabrielle's dour, snippy frump of a Laurey, who doesn't bother to change out of her overalls even when her girlfriends arrive in their party dresses.

Almost everything in this Oklahoma! is similarly misguided, the fake realism of those with no sense of reality, the fake artsiness of those with no artistic sense. Truth equals glumness, comedy equals constant yelling on one note, theatricality means destroying any hint of the era's charm, and naturalism means avoiding all audience contact while singing. Wilson is likable despite the extra effort he needs to fill the vacuum left by Gabrielle, and Justin Bohon's Will is an amiably feisty strutting bantam; I don't mind Andrea Martin's slightly citified Aunt Eller, and rather like Michael McCarty's Andrew Carnes. And it would be worthwhile to see Hensley someday play the role, and not the symbolic essence of something irrelevant to it. But that concludes the list of this production's meager assets: The rest is an ugly mishap, from the dust-bowl scenery and flaccid staging to the hooting orchestra that, upstage of the singers, is often not with their (mostly inadequate) voices. As for the replacement of de Mille's choreography by Susan Stroman's, even if Mount Rushmore gives you the giggles, you wouldn't want to see it replaced by a trailer park.


Roberta Maxwell in The Carpetbagger's Children: joys in the attic
photo: T. Charles Erickson
Roberta Maxwell in The Carpetbagger's Children: joys in the attic

Details

Oklahoma!
By Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II
Gershwin Theatre
Broadway and 50th Street
212-239-6200

The Carpetbagger's Children
By Horton Foote
Newhouse Theatre
Lincoln Center
212-239-6200

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But then, what's old and beautiful tends to be replaced by what's new and crude. If not the moral, that's at least the arc graphed by the three interlocking narratives in Horton Foote's The Carpetbagger's Children, set as usual in Foote's fictive town of Harrison, Texas, and dealing with the three surviving daughters of a Union soldier who settled in as the local tax collector after the Civil War and became the richest local landowner. Narrating to us for no particular reason, these three sisters recount their differing fates, different versions of their father's past and their upbringing, differing scraps of family and town lore; occasionally they make dialogic appearances in each other's soliloquies. Short (85 minutes) and appealingly acted, the piece offers the same enigmatic fun as going through a trunkful of somebody else's old papers in the attic—as, indeed, one of the sisters has done just before the action starts. Foote's longer plays often seem hollow and static to me; this one, pungently terse and (for all its seeming digressions) tightly focused, makes its point elegantly. Jean Stapleton as the saddest of the sisters and the author's daughter Hallie as the spunkiest do solid work; Roberta Maxwell, as bossy Cornelia, head of the clan, is sheer magic—and turns out to have a lovelier soprano voice than any you'll hear in Oklahoma!

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