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Jackman Is Better Than OK in ‘Oklahoma!’

Special to The Times

Hugh Jackman must be feeling a little time-warped these days as he sits in his dressing room inside Broadway’s Imperial Theatre.

Each night, the 35-year-old actor revives the glorious, glittering excess that was flamboyant entertainer Peter Allen in the new musical “The Boy From Oz,” which has earned Jackman ecstatic reviews.

Recently, however, he took a short break from his whirlwind schedule to reflect on one of the roles that helped launch his international career: Curly in Trevor Nunn’s acclaimed Royal National Theatre production of “Oklahoma!” Jackman’s star quality lights up a “Great Performances” PBS telecast of that production (filmed in 1999) Sunday on KVCR and then Saturday on KCET.

Jackman recalls that he jumped at the chance when Nunn offered him the job.

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“I was blindly enthusiastic. I was excited without even having to think about it,” he says. “I had worked with Trevor Nunn on ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and was excited to have the opportunity to work with him again. No director makes you feel more confident.”

And confidence is key in a role that calls for a natural swagger, as well as vocal nerves strong enough for the show’s unconventional opening, in which Curly is heard singing the first measures of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” without the orchestra.

“It’s a pretty naked beginning,” Jackman agrees, “but the first phrase of the song is sung in the wings, and by the time I was on stage, the butterflies in my stomach were gone.”

Theodore S. Chapin, the president and executive director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, says Nunn had Jackman in mind as his “Oklahoma!” leading man from the very start.

“Shortly after I met Trevor, he said, ‘I have the Curly. You are just going to have to trust me,’ ” Chapin recalls. “He sent me a little piece from an Australian TV show on Hugh Jackman, and I put it on in the office, and very soon all the women in the office were coming in going, ‘Ooooh, who is he?’

“When we went over to see what I think was the first dress rehearsal, I could tell Hugh was really exceptional, although I am still convinced English audiences did not ‘get’ Hugh’s Curly the way American audiences will. In a funny way, he is so straight as Curly that you know he is completely undone by this pretty girl and has no idea how to handle her. It just makes the character so incredibly real.”

That credibility also carried over into the realistic fight scenes between Jackman and costar Shuler Hensley, an American actor who earned ecstatic notices with his dangerous yet surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of Jud Fry, Curly’s rival for Laurey.

“I was in heaven, with these two big, strapping men who really knew how to move,” laughs Susan Stroman, whose lusty, fight-based choreography is another highlight of the piece.

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“Hugh and Shuler got to be good friends during rehearsals, so there was a level of trust that allowed them to really throw themselves into that last fight scene, which really looks kind of dangerous,” Chapin adds.

What left audiences gasping was just another source of fun for Jackman and Hensley, however.

“I know it might be hard to believe, but Shuler Hensley is one of the funniest men I have ever met,” Jackman says. “The fight scene rehearsals were like the WWF, and I enjoyed that more than any other serious theater enterprise that I have been a part of.”

The performances of Josefina Gabrielle as headstrong Laurey and character actress Maureen Lipman as crusty Aunt Eller also were well-received by London critics and audiences, but PBS viewers will note that this “Oklahoma!” is undeniably Jackman’s show. With his sunny grin as broad as the prairie itself, the star radiates a joy in performing that is all too rare.

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“Hugh has strength and vulnerability at the same time,” Stroman says. “By the time we finished rehearsing ‘Oklahoma!’ it was shaped through the eyes of Curly, and audiences saw it through his eyes. I never had felt that with any other production of ‘Oklahoma!’ and it had everything to do with Hugh Jackman.

“He comes out and he has the audience in the palm of his hand. Hugh has that as a human being too. He lives in the present and is right there with what is happening around him, whereas, sadly, many other actors always seem to have one foot out the door toward the next job when they are rehearsing or even performing. I think audiences feel that.”

For all this London success with an American work, Jackman’s heart remains Down Under, which is why his current Broadway gig in “The Boy From Oz,” an Australian-crafted musical about an Australian entertainer, is providing a very special reward.

“Peter [Allen] had an honesty in his songwriting that just touches you,” Jackman says, “and being an Aussie, singing ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ every night is, of course, very special to me.

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“I remember very clearly once watching Peter sing the song, which is now like a second national anthem in Australia. The first time he sang it was at the launch of a 15,000-seat entertainment center. Peter had on this waistcoat with an Australian flag behind him.

“My father was watching with my brother and I,” the actor recalls. “We looked up, and Dad was crying. Peter had that way with everyone -- old, young, men, women, gay, straight -- which in Australia was not always that easy.”

John Crook writes for Tribune Media Services.

“Great Performances: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!” airs at 2:30 p.m. Sunday on KVCR, San Bernardino. It will air at 7 p.m. Saturday on KCET, Los Angeles.

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Cover photograph by Hugo Glendinning


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