OKLAHOMA. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II (based on Lynn Rigg's "Green Grow the Lilacs") music by Richard Rodgers; directed by William Hammerstein; choreography by Agnes DeMille, recreated by Gemze de Lappe; scenery by Robert T. Williams; lighting by James Riley; costumes by Kristina Watson; musical direction by Richard Parrinello; produced by Zev Bufman and James Nederlander. With Laurence Guittard, Christine Andreas, Mary Wickes, Martin Vidnovic, Christine Ebersole and Harry Groener. At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sept. 9.
Seeing "Oklahoma" is like uncorking an ancient and venerable bottle of wine.
You know it's supposed to be something pretty terrific you're drinking, so you have to look properly appreciative as you take your first few sips. But secretly you're afraid the stuff has long since turned to vinegar - and your taste buds are so paralyzed from the buildup that it will be a while before you'll be in any state to judge.
Then all of a sudden you're riproaring drunk and basking in an aroma just as glorious as you were hoping and pretending it was.
At the Kennedy Center Opera house last night, the uncertainty was short-lived. When Christine Andreas asked Laurence Guittard if his two horses were really and truly as white as snow, and he replied that "One's like snow - the other's more like milk," the audience wasn't quite ready to laugh yet. Classics aren't supposed to be funny, after all - they're just, well, classic.
But two numbers later, the wall of intimidation had fallen, and the house rocked with laughter as Christine Ebersole, explaining why "I Cain't Say No," asked the rhetorical question: "Supposing that he says that you're sweeter than cream and he's gotta have cream or die; whatcha gonna do, spit in his eye?"
Four and a half million Americans saw the original Broadway production of "Oklahoma" between March 31, 1943, and May 29, 1948, but for an ever-larger majority of us today, the show is no more than a warped and scarred original cast album - off in a closet somewhere - that probably skips in a dozen places.
There have been some musical comedy revivals in recent years that weren't much, if any, improvement on a record that skips. But producers Zev Bufman and James M. Nederlander, and director William Hammerstein (son of Oscar) have invested an unusual amount of skill and care in this production. Theirs is a revival that truly revives.
Those who know the songs inside out, and who suppose that's tantamount to knowing the show inside out, are in for a few surprises (beyond at least two songs that weren't on the record, "Lonely Room" and "It's an Outrage").
The original Agnes DeMille choreography, recreated by Gemze de Lappe, is clean, powerful, exhilirating and indeed worth the fuss that the producers and their press agents have made over it. Thirty-five years later, some of DeMille's concepts seem a trifle arty, but hardly old-fashioned. add four Oklahoma style Fri. replate
The cast, from principals to ensemble, lives up to an astonishingly high standard of smooth professionalism.
As Curly and Laurey, Guittard and Andreas are far more charming than one has any right to expect of the romantic leads in a musical. As Ado Annie, Ebersole manages not only to be funny but utterly to avoid imitating Celeste Holm, who originated the role.
And as Will, Harry Groener ought to be subjected to chemical analysis and perhaps bottled and mass-produced. For he is the musical theater's rarest human resource - a man who can dance, sing and act.
Needless to say, this is not a problem-free production. It has at least three problems:
The scenery, otherwise simple and sensible, includes peculiar mounds of grass terraced after the fashion of mountainside vegetables fields.
Ado Annie insists on pronouncing "women" as "wimern" - as I doubt anyone ever did in Oklahoma or anywhere else (but some meddlesome dialectician will undoubtedly prove me wrong within 24 hours).
And finally and foremost, there was a man in row "O" last night who probably imagined that no one could possible hear him singing and humming along through half the score. Wherever he is now, I'd like him to know he was mistaken. CAPTION: Picture, Harry Groener in "Oklahoma," by James M. Thresher