Broadway Bound

Oklahoma! at the Gershwin Theatre

In London, the tone was set as soon as the curtain rose on a gawky old aunt churning butter amid a vast arc of prairie. Love shyly, awkwardly blossomed. Quarrels about the proper use of virgin land simmered, later bursting into violence between farmers and cowmen at a schoolhouse-raising party. Jud slouched greasily in his lair, plotting revenge on Curly, his bashful rival for the hand of Laurey. It was all as refreshingly real as the thick, rich corn that actually seemed as high as an elephant's eye.

The Oklahoma! that arrives at the Gershwin Theatre on February 23 is virtually the same one that had critics and audiences beside themselves with excitement three and a half years ago, when director Trevor Nunn's revival opened at the Royal National Theatre. Casting issues delayed the transfer to Broadway, and only two performers are holdovers from the National: Josefina Gabrielle, a movingly vulnerable Laurey, and Shuler Hensley, her brutish, unwanted admirer, Jud. But otherwise, Nunn's production is unchanged. Expect a show that's neither as corny as Kansas in August nor as creaky as a surrey--with or without the fringe on top.

Nunn's vision is more realistic: less spotless pink gingham than dirt-stained denim. Collaborating with choreographer Susan Stroman (who most recently directed and choreographed The Producers), he has deepened and darkened Rodgers and Hammerstein's landscape. And Stroman reinforces the realistic feeling of things. In the original Broadway hit of 1943, Agnes de Mille's choreography had the main characters dancing as little as possible: In the famous dream ballet sequence, for instance, classical dancers stood in as Dream Laurey, Curly, and Jud. This time, they don't.

As Nunn says, the first production of the show "affirmed the most fundamental American spiritual values at a time of war." In 2002, the wary coming together of Laurey, Curly, farmers, cowmen--everyone--should again prove more than merely touching. At the finale, when the song "Oklahoma!" soars through the Gershwin, I'll be astonished if New York tears don't flow and hearts don't lift.