Should the stage for "Oklahoma!" look more like cattle country or farm land?
Director Trevor Nunn awarded it to the cowmen in his luminous 1998 London revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which brought Hugh Jackman out of Australia.
Adapted for TV in 1999, the result will air on public television's "Great Performances" series Saturday (KCET-TV at 7 p.m.). No fan of musical theater should miss it.
In this version, the hillocks on both sides of the stage are bare and brown. As the lighting shifts between day and night, so do the colors, but they remain within a basic Southwestern palette.
These Oklahomans look downright poor. The home of Laurey and Aunt Eller, neat and almost sumptuous in the 1955 movie version, doesn't look much bigger than a dirty shack here. In the "Farmer and the Cowman" scene, the pioneers literally raise the roof of what will be their new school, sweating as they work.
Josefina Gabrielle's Laurey wears overalls through most of the first act, in contrast to the prim white blouse and pink skirt donned by Shirley Jones in the movie. And when she sings "Many a New Day," choreographer Susan Stroman has the girls pass around a cowboy hat as they take turns playing potential suitors. The same number in the movie was ultra-feminine, with some of the girls in their underwear.
Has ultra-grim replaced ultra-femme? Not really. The characters come alive more fully in these bleak surroundings. Human cooperation is imperative on the prairie. These folk are a long way from Kansas City, where everything was up to date.
The performances are peerless. Jackman, his hair shining in a way that befits someone with the nickname Curly, projects all the charisma that quickly turned him into a hot property. But Gabrielle, who has yet to achieve fame of Jackman's magnitude, is no slouch in the magnetism department, either. Her face, framed by dark hair, transmits emotions with rare transparency. Their rendition of "People Will Say We're in Love" has an edgy, Tracy-and-Hepburn charm.
Gabrielle, a former ballet dancer, moves dreamily through the extended ballet sequence. Jackman doesn't dance as much, but he moves with grace and strength, and his final fight with the despised Jud Fry (Shuler Hensley) is blistering.
The beefy Hensley, who plays Jud, justifiably won awards. His tormented performance is enhanced by the inclusion of the introspective solo "Lonely Room," which was omitted from the 1955 movie.
Also restored is "It's a Scandal! It's an Outrage!," a rousing chorus for the men who rail against the gun-toting fathers of eligible young women. Peter Polycarpou, playing the Persian peddler who leads the number, provides sharp comic relief, as do Jimmy Johnston and Vicki Simon as Will Parker and Ado Annie, the "girl who cain't say no."
Maureen Lipman's Aunt Eller is a tough biddy who also knows when to break out a warm smile.
The production was shot in a studio as well as on the Royal National Theatre stage. The space looks huge, with a proliferation of camera angles, yet we get glimpses of the audience applauding.
This might bother those who object to the artifice of the stage, but it also begins to suggest the extra spark of excitement in a live performance.
Where: "Great Performances" on PBS
When: Saturday, 7 p.m., on KCET-TV
Josefina Gabrielle ...Laurey
Maureen Lipman...Aunt Eller
The 1998 production of "Oklahoma" directed by Trevor Nunn at the Royal National Theatre.