Several years ago, Hugh Jackman proved beyond a shadow of a doubt he had the musical chops to conquer Broadway. The Australian actor seduced New York's crusty theater critics, garnering unanimous praise - and a well-deserved Tony Award - for his portrayal of flamboyant entertainer Peter Allen in the splashy musical, 'The Boy from Oz,' and come Christmas Day he'll be headlining the much anticipated film version of the Broadway blockbuster, 'Les Misérables.' Many of Jackman's fans, who knew him best as Wolverine, that hairy hunk with the glowering eyes and retractable claws from the 'X-Men' movies, were surprised by his success in the musical milieu, but to anyone lucky enough to have seen the 1998 London revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'Oklahoma!' or listen to its CD cast recording, such versatility is old news. And now, thanks to Image Entertainment's Blu-ray release of this highly lauded performance, those of us who reside far away from the bright lights of Broadway can finally discover what all the fuss is about.
From the moment Jackman (as the brash, charming Curly McLain) walks on stage and begins to belt out 'Oh! What a Beautiful Mornin',' it's irrefutably clear we're in the presence of a major musical star. The man can sing! But it's not just Jackman's vocal power that grabs our attention. The actor's energy, enthusiasm, sparkling eyes, and dazzling smile all contribute to a truly electric stage presence. With a natural, confident air, he takes full command of every scene in which he appears, and when he's not on stage, we impatiently await his return. At one point during first act of 'Oklahoma!,' he's gone for a full 25 minutes, and while the rest of the cast carries on admirably without him, his absence ever so slightly slows the show.
It's been almost 70 years since 'Oklahoma!' first swept onto Broadway, and the blasé familiarity the title now inspires makes us forget what a big deal this musical once was. Almost overnight, 'Oklahoma!' revolutionized the aer form, ushering in an era of maturity and substance that continues to this day. In prior musicals, songs often functioned as stand-alone interludes and disrupted the story's flow, but Rodgers and Hammerstein changed all that, weaving songs into the fabric of the plot so they advanced the action and delineated character. 'Oklahoma!' was also the first musical to feature a lengthy ballet with psychological overtones, address serious issues, fully devlop a broad canvas of characters, and musicalize highly dramatic moments. Someone even dies! Before 'Oklahoma!,' such events were unheard of in the musical genre, more akin to Shakespeare and Eugene O'Neill than the tunesmiths of The Great White Way.
The musical's premise is deceptively shallow, as it revolves around a rural town dance and whether Curly and Laurey (Josefina Gabrielle) will drop their defenses and admit their amorous feelings, or allow Jud (Shuler Hensley), a brooding, tortured farmhand, to come between them. Another triangular romance — between flirtatious Ado Annie (Vicki Simon), down-home cowman Will Parker (Jimmy Johnston), and traveling peddler Ali Hakim (Peter Polycarpou) - adds diversion, but can't mask the substance simmering beneath the story's surface. Set in 1907, against the backdrop of impending statehood, 'Oklahoma!' depicts in microcosm the palpable tension between farmers and ranchers, and how that friction influences the characters' choices and desires. Adult themes of sex, isolation, and twisted longing also swirl about the show, adding the rare element of suspense to a Broadway musical.
This production, impeccably directed by Trevor Nunn ('Les Misérables,' 'Sunset Boulevard'), preserves the original's power and depth, while revitalizing its structure. Agnes de Mille's legendary choreography has been scrapped in favor of all-new dances devised by Susan Stroman (who went on to direct and choreograph the Broadway blockbuster 'The Producers'). To accommodate her vision, some of Rodgers' orchestrations and dance arrangements were modified, but the electrifying results justify the changes. Stroman's choreography is stylish and appropriately exuberant, especially the dramatic and passionate Act I finale ballet. Nunn also succeeds in delving deeper into Jud's troubled character, helping us better understand his motivations and menacing actions.
Sometimes filmed theatrical performances possess a static quality and lack visual panache, due to limited camera angles and production constraints, but Nunn avoids such problems by merely creating the illusion of a live performance. Don't be fooled; this production of 'Oklahoma!' was performed and shot on a sterile soundstage (made to look like a theatrical stage), and at times more closely resembles a movie than a play. Yet, in this case, that's a good thing. 'Oklahoma!' becomes a more intimate experience as a result; we understand the characters better, glean more nuances, and enjoy more artistic shot compositions, especially during the musical numbers. The inserted audience reaction shots and applause often seem jarring and inconsistent (some songs receive ovations, others do not), but what we gain in perspective outweighs any awkwardness.
In addition to Jackman's vigorous, captivating portrayal, Hensley embodies the character of Jud, filling him with angst, despair, and a creepy foreboding that elevate his status beyond that of token villain. During his intense performance of 'Lonely Room,' Hensley weaves a riveting spell, masterfully turning our enmity into empathy with his wounded eyes and resonant vocal tones. Unfortunately, none of the female leads can reach the same lofty heights. Although Gabrielle possesses a sweet singing voice, spunk, and charm, her Laurey lacks the magnetism to believably attract (and even obsess) both Curly and Jud. (One can't help but compare her to Shirley Jones in the 1955 movie version, and she comes up short.) Maureen Lipman provides a strong, steadying influence as Aunt Eller and Vicki Simon is appropriately vivacious and flighty as Ado Annie, but neither can compete with Jackman and Hensley.
As the disc's "making-of" documentary points out, it's rare for a musical to spawn four legendary songs, but practically unprecedented for all four to be sung by one character. Jackman takes 'Oh! What A Beautiful Mornin',' 'Surry With the Fringe on Top,' 'People Will Say We're in Love,' and the rousing title tune, and immediately makes them his own. He's the heart and soul of this brilliantly conceived and executed revival, which reinvents and reinvigorates 'Oklahoma!' Jackman is by no means a movie star slumming in musical theater until the next blockbuster comes along. He's the real deal.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Oklahoma!' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The 'Oklahoma!' transfer looks like it has been struck from the same master used for the 2003 DVD release, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, although a bit of maintenance surely would have improved the picture quality. Grain is surprisingly evident, and the levels fluctuate throughout the production. Given the controlled environment of the show's shoot, I expected a sharper, smoother image with a higher degree of contrast, but despite these deficiencies, the picture often appears bright, vibrant, and nicely detailed, especially in tighter shots.
The costumes come off particularly well, with the leather chaps, suede vests, and straw hats all exhibiting plenty of texture. There's a lot of plaid in 'Oklahoma!,' and I'm happy to report the patterns remain rock solid and resist shimmering all through the three-hour running time. Colors look good, but don't exude that eye-popping intensity one often expects from a big musical. Black and white levels are fine (no crush or blooming on display), and fleshtones stay true and stable despite the use of stage makeup. Close-ups are well defined, highlighting Jackman's rugged appearance and the soft complexions of the ladies.
Most disturbing, however, are the numerous instances of speckling that occur. Errant white marks randomly crop up every now and then, drawing attention ever-so-slightly away from the action. I'm not used to seeing such annoyances on more recent Blu-ray releases, so the instances here were quite jarring. Some digital noise also crops up from time to time in more dimly lit scenes, but no other anomalies occur. Though most viewers might not be bothered by these imperfections, those with discriminating eyes will surely notice them, and I hope Image cleans up future catalogue titles before releasing them on Blu-ray in the future.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track supplies good-quality sound that's clear and well modulated; it's just a shame a more robust 5.1 mix couldn't have been engineered for this release. Musicals such as 'Oklahoma!' require maximum fidelity to achieve optimal impact, and a score as legendary as this one would highly benefit from a more immersive, multi-channel presentation, but what Image provides suffices, albeit on a more modest scale. Dynamic range is quite good, with the brassy highs emitting a nice purity of tone and resisting distortion, while lows are full and warm, if not particularly weighty. Stereo separation could be more pronounced, but the track possesses enough power to fill the room.
Instrumentals are crisp and distinct, and the out-front vocals enjoy a lovely sense of depth and warmth. Dialogue is always well prioritized and easy to understand, and no imperfections, such as hiss or surface noise, disrupt the track's smooth flow. Though this is far from the dream track 'Oklahoma!' fans surely hoped for, it's nevertheless a solid effort that serves this production well.
Only a single extra adorns this release, but it's a good one.
Oh, what a beautiful show! If you think 'Oklahoma!' is passé, then you haven't seen Trevor Nunn's muscular, thrilling revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. With his eye-opening performance as Curly, Hugh Jackman proves he's a jack-of-all-trades and a formidable musical presence. Coupled with fine audio and video transfers, this presentation of 'Oklahoma!' is much more than O.K.; it's spectacular. Recommended.