Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Irrational Exuberance of "Oklahoma!"

There was quite a bit to choose from among special screenings last weekend: Benjamin Cumberbatch in Hamlet with Britain's National Theater, Wagner's Tannhauser in HD from the Metropolitan Opera ... or a newly restored 70 mm version of the 1955 film Oklahoma!.

As it turned out, both showings of Hamlet were already sold out. And with a running time of 4 hours and 20 minutes, the Wagner seemed a little much for a bright Saturday afternoon.

On the other hand, I had never seen Oklahoma!, though I lived in that state when the movie came out. At the time of its original release, my parents convinced me that I wouldn't like the movie. In any case, they weren't going to take me,  and I certainly wasn't going to go by myself: I was three years old.

Since then my tastes have matured—I think. I've grown fond of Hollywood musicals like Cover Girl and Singin' in the Rain as well as Broadway-based productions like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and 1776. For me, the essential ingredient in a successful musical (as in life) is irrational exuberance.

Oklahoma! has got plenty of that. The tunes aren't of the caliber to become jazz standards. In fact, several of them are border-line sappy, including the title tune," Oh, What a Beautiful Morning'," and "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top." But they're plenty good within the context of the plot, and the sparky dancing on numbers like "Kansas City" (watch it here)  and "The Farmer and the Cowhand" made a first-time viewer like me giddy with enthusiasm.

Then there's the surreal and macabre number "Poor Jud is Dead," which is simply too weird to describe; the courting duet "All er Nuttin'," with its multivalent sexual innuendo;  the nightmare sequence, which is truly grotesque; and the film's best number, which I've been whistling for a week— "People Will Say We're in Love."

Gordon McCrae and a very young Shirley Jones are perfectly cast as the winsome couple, Rod Steiger brings a properly sinister edge to the role of the slovenly farm-hand who sleeps in the smokehouse, Richard Widmark is a suitably stern and protective father, and Eddie Albert hams it up as the libidinous traveling salesman.  The result is a two-and-a-half hour delight that didn't really need an intermission.

I guess I'm just reiterating here what everyone who's interested in musicals already knows. What I didn't know is that some critics consider Oklahoma! to be "the single most influential work in the American musical theater." Why? Because it was the first musical to integrate song, character, plot and dance in an American vernacular idiom.

Other critics, reacting to this remark, have pointed to plenty of antecedents, including Show Boat. Well, whatever.

The film was listed in the paper as playing at Willow Creek, but the theater website made no mention of it. Wondering if the limited run might have sold out, I called the theater.

"I think you'll get in," the man in the box-office said. "We currently have 234 seats available." 

The theater seats 240. 

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