Tag Archives: Shuler Hensley

At 70, you’re still doin’ fine, ‘Oklahoma!’

'Great Performances' presents an encore telecast of its 2003 presentation of 'Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!,' with Hugh Jackman as Curly.

Hugh Jackman (Curly), Maureen Lipman (Aunt Eller) and Josefina Gabrielle (Laurey) star in a ‘Great Performances’ encore telecast of ‘Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!’

As Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! marks the 70th anniversary this year of its Broadway premiere, tonight Great Performances offers a very welcome encore presentation (in high definition for the first time) of Trevor Nunn’s critically acclaimed staging of the show, which first aired on PBS in 2003.
Hugh Jackman heads the mostly British cast as Curly, the role that propelled him to international stardom after Nunn’s production opened at London’s Royal National Theatre in 1998. Still largely unknown at the time outside his native Australia, Jackman quickly had female theatergoers swooning, with The London Daily Telegraph describing the actor as “6 feet, 3 inches of perfect tanned cowboy.”
Yet this well-received production, which transferred to Broadway in 2002, was no mere star vehicle. Oklahoma! was widely regarded as little more than a quaint and charming period piece when Nunn began pondering his revival. After all, the plot mostly revolves around the burning question of which boy a pretty young girl is going to let take her to a picnic.
Nunn, however, recognized conflict and complexity in the show’s homespun characters, especially when it came to Jud Fry, the lonely and inarticulate hired hand vying with Curly for the attentions of Laurey (Josefina Gabrielle), the show’s heroine. Over the years since Oklahoma! premiered, Jud had become a stock villain, someone who existed only to pose a threat to Curly and Laurey’s happiness. In Nunn’s revival, the character gained a new, almost tragic stature through the casting of American actor Shuler Hensley, whose shattering performance earned him an Olivier Award in London and a Tony Award in New York. It helped that Nunn also restored Jud’s often-cut solo, “Lonely Room,” near the end of Act One, a number that chillingly underscored Jud’s obsession with Laurey.
Probably the most controversial change that Nunn made, however, was his decision to hire five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman to reconceive Agnes DeMille’s legendary choreography, which previously had been considered a production element as integral to Oklahoma! as the music of Richard Rodgers and the book and lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II. Stroman’s revisions included rethinking one of DeMille’s career masterpieces, the dream ballet for Laurey that climaxes Act One, in which DeMille had dancers doubling for the singers playing Laurey and Curly. In Jackman and Gabrielle, however, Stroman was blessed to have two singers who were accomplished dancers, a strength she exploited in a dance number that combines romantic lyricism and chilling violence.
As I recently rewatched this Oklahoma!, I was surprised to note that it clocks in at close to three hours, although it certainly doesn’t feel long. Anthony Ward, who also designed the costumes, came up with a spare but evocative set that emphasizes seemingly vast stretches of space, suggesting both a dreamscape and the sweeping plains of the Oklahoma territory at the start of the 20th century. It certainly doesn’t hurt, either, that the score contains one Broadway standard after another, from Curly’s “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” to the love duet “People Will Say We’re in Love” and Ado Annie’s comic complaint “I Cain’t Say No.”
Oklahoma! may have been the first true masterwork from the Broadway dream team that also would give us South Pacific, Carousel, The King and I and The Sound of Music, but as Nunn and company remind us, this 1943 musical still has a bracing freshness and power to surprise us after all these years.
Josefina Gabrielle and Hugh Jackman are pioneer lovers Laurey and Curly in 'Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!' on PBS.

Laurey (Josefina Gabrielle) and Curly (Hugh Jackman) sing ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’ from ‘Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!,’ airing tonight on ‘Great Performances.’

R&H’s problematic ‘Carousel’ gets a deluxe treatment from PBS

Nathan Gunn and Kelli O’Hara
Compared to their four other masterpieces – Oklahoma, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music – Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel is the team’s problem child, a work of sometimes piercing musical beauty that is hobbled by a depressing book and two leading characters that are hard for a modern audience to connect with.
This adaptation of an even darker Hungarian drama called Liliom transfers the main action to a Maine coastal community, charting the tragic romance between handsome but arrogant carnival barker Billy Bigelow and mild-mannered mill worker Julie Jordan. Billy, we subsequently learn, is given to smacking Julie around when he gets frustrated, although Julie will reassure her daughter, Louise, later in the play that when you love someone enough, the slaps feel almost like kisses. Needless to say, this sort of thing is a bitter pill for today’s theatergoers to swallow, and that’s not even taking into account that Billy commits suicide during a botched robbery early in Act Two. Julie’s doormat tendencies are only underlined by her apparent decision to marry Billy not because of any sterling qualities he possesses, just so she wouldn’t be alone, which is yet another downer.
Thankfully, the score – which composer Richard Rodgers has said was his favorite – still mostly holds up today, and that’s what is highlighted in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel With the New York Philharmonic, a Live From Lincoln Center special premiering Friday on many PBS affiliates (check your local listings closely – in my market, it’s not airing until this Sunday afternoon).
The series has assembled an absolutely stunning cast led by Metropolitan opera superstar baritone Nathan Gunn and four-time Tony Award nominee Kelli O’Hara (Nellie Forbush in the 2010 Live From Lincoln Center telecast of South Pacific) as Billy and Julie. Met Opera favorite Stephanie Blythe co-stars as Nettie Fowler, who sings “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and former Tony nominee Jessie Mueller and Jason Danieley (who sang Lt. Cable in a 2006 Great Performances concert presentation of South Pacific with Reba McEntire) as Julie’s best friend, Carrie Pipperidge, and her beau, Enoch Snow. Rounding out the cast are Tony winner Shuler Hensley, Kate Burton and John Cullum. Rob Fisher conducts the New York Philharmonic for this staged concert performance, which was directed by John Rando.
The production wasn’t available for preview, but Live From Lincoln Center has been posting several sneak peeks on its Facebook page that suggest this telecast is a must-see for musical theater fans. The Broadway revival of South Pacific in which O’Hara starred a few years ago didn’t shrink from the topic of American racism during World War II, and it will be interesting to see how she and Gunn, both really splendid singing actors, handle Billy and Julie’s troubling relationship.
One moment to watch for in particular comes early in Act One, the so-called “bench scene” in which Billy and Julie meet and fall in love while firmly insisting that they are not, in fact, falling in love, in the song “If I Loved You,” in which music, dialogue and singing are woven ingeniously into a seamless whole. Other memorable songs include the aforementioned “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and Billy’s famous “Soliloquy,” in which he muses on his impending fatherhood. Actually, there are few real clinkers in the score, apart from the inane “This Was a Real Nice Clambake,” and Rodgers’ purely instrumental numbers, like the showpiece “The Carousel Waltz” that opens the show and the haunting beach ballet for Louise in Act Two, show the composer at the very height of his powers.
In some respects, Carousel always is going to seem like a flawed work, but if you want to sample its considerable musical merits, this special is about as good as it’s going to get.