While we have the opportunity to watch old films, it’s impossible to go back in time to watch a theatre performance. There are so many incredible performances that will be remembered only by those privileged to have witnessed them at the time. Therefore, the cinematic release of the Olivier Award-winning 1998 production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! provides theatre fans with a very rare and unique opportunity.
There are just two screenings, in more than 840 cinemas around the globe, on Sunday 16th July and Wednesday 19th July. These cinema screenings are presented by Trafalgar Releasing, in partnership with Concord Originals and The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the groundbreaking 1943 Broadway premiere. The screening opens with an introduction by Imogen Lloyd Webber (yes, she is the daughter of Andrew Lloyd Webber), who provides some background to the creation and subsequent success of Oklahoma!
This 1998 production of Oklahoma! is directed by theatre legend and three-time Tony Award winner Trevor Nunn (CATS, Les Misérables) with new choreography by five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman (The Producers, Crazy for You). The creative team includes set and costume designer Anthony Ward, lighting designer David Hersey, music director John Owen Edwards and orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett, with additional orchestrations by William David Brohn and new dance music arranged by David Krane. The film was produced by Richard Price and Chris Hunt, and directed by Trevor Nunn and Chris Hunt. Director of photography was Paul Wheeler, and editing was by Keith Palmer.
Oklahoma! is a classic musical, and worthy of a screening to celebrate its 80th anniversary, but this award-winning 25-year-old production of Oklahoma! features none-other-than Hugh Jackman. No doubt Jackman’s Hollywood star-power adds an extra appeal to audience goers to head to the cinema for this rare screening. Fans of Oklahoma!, fans of Hugh Jackman and fans of musical theatre in general will not be disappointed. Jackman’s performance alone is worth the price of the admission ticket.
The performance opens with a live audience in the theatre, but we don’t see or hear anything further from the audience until interval. There is no applause at the end of songs, which quickly transition to the next scene, despite being very worthy of a rousing ovation. Some scene changes are very much what you would see live before you in the theatre, but others are more filmic. At times we watch the full stage, and at other times the attention is focused with close ups that you would never see from even the best seats in the theatre.
I’ve seen countless productions of Oklahoma! over several decades, from professional to community to school productions, so admittedly, I knew the plot and therefore there were no surprises. However, it was apparent that for many people in the audience this was their first time seeing Oklahoma! There were audible gasps of shock as the story unfolded. Cinematic screenings make these classic musicals much more accessible to a wider audience.
I’m not sure how many of our audience came to see Oklahoma! compared with how many came specifically to see Hugh Jackman. Either way, a large number turned out to my local cinema.
Hugh Jackman commands the stage as Curly, with rich vocals and a charming presence. It’s impossible not to like him, and his rendition of ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’ is a real highlight. Playing opposite Jackman, as Curly’s love interest, Laurie, is Josefina Gabrielle. Gabrielle is delightful as Laurie, although the character frustratingly spends most of the show playing hard to get and not expressing her true feelings, ultimately leading on her poor farmhand, Jud Fry.
Perhaps it’s just that I’m now watching Oklahoma! in 2023, perhaps it was the close up big screen performances, perhaps it was the directorial decisions and performances, but I felt quite different about Jud in this production. Tony and Olivier Award winner Shuler Hensley is outstanding as Jud Fry and I felt much more compassion for this character than I have in the past. In fact, his performance of ‘Pore Jud is Daid’ was the only song that elicited some out-loud applause in our cinema.
Maureen Lipman is brilliant as Aunt Eller, delivering a strong performance.
Vicki Simon is wonderful as Ado Annie, bringing a delightful naivety to her role. Jimmy Johnston is excellent as Will Parker and masters the complex choreography by Susan Stroman with ease. His rope work in particular is a highlight.
Rounding out the leading cast is Peter Polycarpou who is hilarious as Ali Hakim, and more likeable than sleezy.
Oklahoma! was the first musical written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The musical is based on Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs. The story is set in 1906 in rural Oklahoma. The musical opened on Broadway in 1943. Times have changed since the original play, the original production and even this 1998 West End production. There are moments in the story that now feel awkward – attitudes towards women, violence, bullying, consent, relationships, marriage.Hopefully it will prompt a new audience to question what used to be considered as acceptable behaviour and appreciate how far we’ve come, but also consider how much further we still have to go as a society.
However, there are so many wonderful aspects of this show that make it indeed a classic and worth seeing. When it first opened, Oklahoma! was groundbreaking. It was intended to do more than simply entertain, but to evoke emotions. Oklahoma! also features some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most memorable songs, such as “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “People Will Say We’re in Love” and “Oklahoma.” It’s impossible to leave the cinema without one of these classics in your head.
There is just one more screening of Oklahoma! in cinemas around the world on Wednesday 19th July. It’s a unique opportunity to see this classic musical featuring one of our country’s greatest talents. While nothing compares to seeing a live performance, this is as good as we can get. Hopefully we’ll see more recorded performances being pulled from the archives and screened for a new audience.
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