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Image / RPTA limited
2003 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 180 min. / Street Date November 18, 2003 / 24.99
Starring Hugh Jackman, Josefina Gabrielle, Shuler Hensley, Peter Polycarpou, Jimmy Johnston, Vicki Simon, Maureen Lipman
Cinematography Paul Wheeler
Production and Costumes Anthony Ward
Art Direction Eric Walmsey
Choreography Susan Stroman
Film Editor Keith Palmer
Original Music Richard Rodgers
Book & Lyrics Oscar Hammerstein II from a play by Lynn Riggs
Produced by Richard Price and Chris Hunt
Directed by Trevor Nunn and (film) Chris Hunt

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Well, everyone said it would be better than the popular 1955 movie, and they were right. This filmed version of the 1999 London Stage production of Oklahoma! restores a lot of the charm to the landmark Rodgers and Hammerstein original. The old Fred Zinnemann Todd A-O film is a fine entertainment, but the musical play does much better for not being warped out of shape by movie stars too over-powered (Rod Steiger) under-powered (Shirley Jones) miscast (Eddie Albert) or restrained (Gloria Grahame). Filmed to retain the stage settings and design, this glowing presentation wisely displays and records the theater experience. It adds closeups and mild camera moves but refrains from taking an editorial cookie cutter to the dance numbers and set-pieces.


Because of a misunderstanding, Laurey (Josefina Gabrielle) is taken to the big dance by surly hired helper Jud Fry (Shuler Hensley) instead of her true love, handsome Curly (Hugh Jackman). Meanwhile, Ado Annie (Vicki Simon) can't choose between peddler Ali Hakim (Peter Polycarpou) or Will Parker (Jimmy Johnston) when it comes to marriage. And Aunt Eller (Maureen Lipman) tries to keep the peace so that the country can grow strong and free.

Short and sweet is the best way to approach this notice for Image's Oklahoma! I first became interested in video and film 'recordings' of bigtime plays and musicals when laserdiscs came out for shows like Porgy and Bess, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd. My experience with stage musicals is limited. I've read about the big shows in New York for 40 years, only occasionally seeing one of the versions restaged in Los Angeles. Then, you go and do a stupid thing like attend a bad one (at over $100 for the night) and figure it's best to stick with movies.

As I've said recently, it's a shame that all Broadway shows aren't recorded in one way or another, just so future generations can see what all the accolades were about instead of watching the Milos Forman film of Hair and wondering how it could have been done on a stage, or if it even resembled the same story.

Plot-wise, Oklahoma! is the same as the movie. The film is dominated by the big screen and wide-open scenery that mostly gets in the way, literalizing the poetry in Hammerstein's folksy lyrics. Real wind blows through the grass around Aunt Eller's picture-perfect farm; it's too real.

This new version's stage setting is all that's needed. Stage bric a brac expresses scenery in broad strokes leaves the rest to the imagination. Lighting creates interesting patterns on the stage floor. A sloping cyclorama gives a strange orange background to many scenes, in some scenes making it look like Laurey's place is located on a moon of Jupiter.

There are 'new' songs that were apparently dropped from the film version (Savant's no show-tunes expert) and benign but saucy lyric lines have been reinstated, such as Ado Annie talking about sitting on men's laps. Ali Hakim is allowed to be his original Persian stereotype, and all the cowpokes are interested in French postcards, not just Jud Fry.

Laurey's Out of My Dreams wedding ballet-nightmare is now definitely instigated by a drink of Ali Hakim's elixir, instead of the simple nap in the film. I guess they wanted to temper the drug reference for the big screen.

Perhaps the best things are what they didn't change. The orchestrations of the songs are traditional and not 'adapted' for a new generations. Thus they come through in their basic beauty ... every one a keeper. Most of the dancing resembles the Agnes De Mille variations on western and cowboy themes, although someone slipped hints of Bob Fosse into the nightmare with the dance hall girls. Also, Laurey wears scrubby overalls until it's time for the big dance - is this a 1999 change, or part of the original show. It certainly works better than Shirley Jones' 'springtime fresh' dresses.

The literal reality of film pushed the stage property out of shape, concerning itself with real corn in a real cornfield (psst ... gotta make sure it looks as high as a' elephant's eye, there) and making the plot seem even thinner than it is. Made in the darker hours of WW2, Oklahoma! is an optimistic look at square values and a celebration of the idea that America has a future. It's about collective dreams and desires - marriage, hopes, a new land. Because it embraces these original strengths, it's as good as ever.

Image's two disc set of Oklahoma! has the filmed play on one disc and an exhaustive making-of show on a second. The enhanced picture makes the show look BIG on a sizeable monitor, allowing for both more spectacle and more intimacy. Color and production value are excellent; number changes are framed by toward-the-audience angles probably filmed separately from the play proper - the cameras are too involved with the action for this to have been shot with a real audience present.

I wish all of those Sondheim DVDs (soon to be reviewed in a boxed set) could have been filmed this way. By the looks of the legalese on the back of the DVD case, setting up a filming of a stage hit here or in England is a gargantuan task. Broadway producers probably hope for the million dollar Hollywood sales that take years to come together, by which time the shows are no longer current, or are distorted by star politics: A Chorus Line, Evita. I hope this becomes a positive precedent for other hits, whether they be revivals or new shows.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Oklahoma! rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: 2-disc set, 60-minute making-of program
Packaging: slim-double keep case
Reviewed: November 20, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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