Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! 
DVD Music-Concert
Written by Tara O'Shea   
Tuesday, 18 November 2003

Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!

Image Entertainment
MPAA rating: NR
starring: Hugh Jackman, Josefina Gabrielle, Shuler Hensley, Jimmy Johnston, Maureen Lipman, Peter Polycarpou, Vicki Simon, Stuart Milligan, Helen Anker
release year: 1999
film rating: Five Stars
sound/picture: Five Stars
reviewed by: Tara O'Shea

I'm not usually much for musicals. Aside from a production of "Annie" at age nine, I've never been much of a theatergoer. So I'm going to say upfront that I have no real basis for comparison, when it comes to other productions, staged or filmed, of "Oklahoma!"

That said, this is one hell of a good production and a very interesting DVD. Director Trevor Nunn's revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's first collaborative effort shines with stellar performances, excellent dance choreography and interesting arrangements of songs that have wormed their way into mass consciousness since the musical adaptation of Lynn Riggs' "Green Grow the Lilacs" first hit Broadway in 1943. And this filmed version --first aired on television -- is a curious hybrid of stage and film techniques. Unlike the BBC-reared audiences of the U.K., Americans are not as familiar with filmed stage plays, so at first the combination of abstract sets which suggest the wide-open spaces of the American West and the language of film -- complete with close-ups, moving camera shots and intercutting -- might be jarring. However, by 20 minutes into the landmark Royal National Theatre production, most viewers will be so captivated by the performances as to hardly notice. The only time the spell is broken is when the production cuts to shots of the London audience, which can be jarring, especially since the film was not made in front of a live audience.

The story follows the lives of settlers in the turn-of-the-century Oklahoma territory, in a time when life on the frontier was hard, but the community was close-knit. The melodrama centers around young soon-to-be-lovers Curly (Hugh Jackman) and Laurey (Josefina Gabrille). Laurey is on the cusp of womanhood, still gallivanting in overalls around the farm she and her maiden Aunt Eller (Maureen Lipman) manage, while her best friend Ado Annie (Vicki Simon) has graduated to frills and corsets and kissing (amongst other pastimes). Laurey and Curly are assumed by the townsfolk to already be sweethearts, and the two resist their attraction almost out of pure stubbornness, until the night of the Box Social to raise money for the new schoolhouse. Just to spite Curly, Laurey has accepted the invitation of farm hand Jud Fry (Shuler Hensley). However, the churlish and uncouth Jud's disturbing obsession with Laurey makes her uncomfortable, and for good reason. Having vivid nightmares about Jud killing Curly and pressing his unwanted attentions upon her, by the night of the party Laurey is wound tight as a spring. Curly and Jud vie for her affections in the form of the box lunch auction, which ends with Curly having sold everything he owns, down to his gun and saddle -- by which he makes his living as a cowboy -- to outbid Jud. This sends Jud into a murderous rage, which results in him crashing Laurey and Curly's wedding, with deadly results.

Bringing some much-needed humor to the three-hour production is the love triangle of Bill (Jimmy Johnston), Ado Annie, and Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Peter Polycarpou), who isn't so much looking for a wife as he is a roll in the hay. Both innocent and sensual, Ado Annie is a little girl in a grownup woman's body, playing both suitors against each other not out of malice so much as a genuine confusion as to what she really wants from life. However, her shotgun-toting father, Cord Elam (Stuart Milligan), knows exactly what he wants -- $50 cash from Jim to take his daughter's hand in marriage, or Ali Hakim's ring on her hand, after he catches the two fooling around. Rounding out the cast is matriarch Aunt Eller (the astounding Lipman), who is de facto leader of the town, trying to diffuse explosive situations as they happen, gruffly fond of Curly and fiercely protective of Laurey.

Jackman's song-and-dance-man chops might surprise anyone who is only familiar with the cigar-smoking, butt-kicking Wolverine in Brian Singer's “X-Men” live-action films. However, it's easy to see why Jackman was nominated for an Olivier award for his performance of Curly. From the opening strains of "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" through Laurey's nightmare ballet to the action-packed final showdown with Jud Fry, Jackman is captivating. His chemistry with co-star Gabrille as Laurey is electric -- by the time the two finally kiss, audiences will be on the edge of their seats in breathless anticipation. And not a few swooning fans will no doubt be replaying that particular scene a few times, before moving on to the rest of the film. Likewise captivating is Shuler Hensley as Jud, whose "Poor Jud Is Dead" is a showstopper. Hensley takes what could be a cartoon villain and instead turns in a phenomenal portrait of obsession and genuine menace, without ever stooping to moustache-twirling cliché.

Nunn's production is noteworthy for a many reasons, not the least of which is presenting the entire original script and score, and having leads Jackman and Gabrille perform the dream ballet, which traditionally was performed by dancers doubling as Curly and Laurey. Retaining the film's leads keeps the audience focused on their characters, and lends resonance to their romance. Nunn and co-director Chris Hunt manage to retain the grandeur of full-cast production numbers and Susan Stroman's stunning choreography, while closeups reveal the subtlety and nuances of performance which might have been lost in the stage production, but come through with remarkable depth and texture on film.

Visually, the disc is clean and rich, with vibrant colors, particularly the set's warm hues, which suggest the plains and the brilliant blue sky. While the patterned costumes might occasionally cause some small distortion, the transfer is otherwise excellent and free from any noticeable flaws. The image is at times a touch soft, but that only lends a slightly dreamlike quality to the production. Equally engaging is the 5.1 sound mix. Dialogue is sharp and clear, and the songs are rich and full, with no distortion, and the singers' voices are never eclipsed by the orchestra. Giving the stage play a home theatre feel, ambient noises such as birdsong come through the rears.

The second disc contains a 60-minute "making of" special, originally for television broadcast, which features interviews with the production staff, cast and members of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Foundation commenting on both the 1999 stage revival and the film. Of particular interest are the interviews with Stroman, discussing the choreography and orchestrations. Both Stroman and Nunn go out of their way to acknowledge the freedoms granted the production by the Rodgers & Hammerstein Foundation, who in turn are effusive in their praise of Nunn's revival. Theatre aficionados will most likely be thrilled with the interview segments with Richard Rodgers' daughter, who emphatically states, "This is a better production than the original. And I'm one of the few people alive and walking around who saw the original."

Considering this particular production features a shirtless Jackman dancing, singing and fighting, I'm sure most of us can agree with her heartily on that score.

more details
sound format:
English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
aspect ratio(s):
special features: 60-Minute Making-Of Program
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Pioneer DV-C302D
receiver: Yamaha RXU870
main speakers: Boston Acoustics
center speaker: Boston Acoustics
rear speakers: Boston Acoustics
subwoofer: Velodyne
monitor: 32" Sony Trinitron

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