Magazine article The Spectator

So What's New?

Magazine article The Spectator

So What's New?

Article excerpt

Right then, there's a bright golden haze on the meadow, the corn is as high as an elephant's eye, and the new National Theatre Oklahoma! is the best we are ever likely to see in the rest of a lifetime. Trevor Nunn, since Les Miserables the greatest crowd-controller in the musical business, has wisely gone back to the original play, Lynn Riggs's Green Grow the Lilacs, in order to find a little more much-needed plot, while the undoubted star of the evening, Broadway's leading choreographer Susan Stroman, has after 50 long years finally cut through all those tired reruns of Agnes de Mille impersonators and given us a brilliantly vibrant new staging.

True, Maureen Lipman is a little young for Aunt Eller, thereby suggesting a whole new relationship with her future nephew Curly, but Hugh Jackman and Josefine Gabrielle (a real dancer, so mercifully no more doubles for the ballet) are genuine finds for the leads, while Peter Polycarpou and Shuler Hensley are no less talented in the chief character roles.

So why couldn't I join the cheering that ran through the Olivier last week as loudly as I have ever heard it? Because it makes a mockery of the idea that the National should stage shows that no other theatre can. Oklahoma! has no place, any more than the concurrent Jean Brodie, in the repertoire of a state-subsidised company with (on this occasion) extra financial help from Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who has already often toured other productions of an over-familiar classic. What of the National's past musicals, then? Lady in the Dark and the Sondheims could never have been seen elsewhere in such expert or lavish stagings; Guys and Dolls had all but disappeared locally, and Carousel was a redefinition of a hitherto hidden, dark heart at the centre of the piece.

Oklahoma! is neither revelation nor rediscovery; it is just a very good, endlessly revived landmark musical given here an expert and expensive revival. Certainly the National should stage musicals, especially in financially hard times, and certainly a great musical can be as wondrous an experience as a great Shakespeare or Shaw play. Certainly the National should celebrate the genius of Rodgers-Hammerstein, but how much better, surely, to have given us after almost half a century the British premieres of their long-lost Allegro or Pipe Dream or Me & Juliet.

Nobody has ever underestimated the importance of Oklahoma! in the wartime rebirth of the American musical, nor its message to returning servicemen that this is what they were fighting for, as many a new day dawned. But there is nothing really new to tell us about a show which would look just fine at Drury Lane, or indeed the Lyceum which is where this revival will probably end up pre-Broadway. How long now before the National gets around to Annie or A Chorus Line, both of which could well be defended on this precedent?

In a week of big musicals I have, as they sing in another one, never seen anything like it in my life. From a purely scenic point of view, and it is dazzling, there has never been in London theatre a production as rich in special effects as Dr Dolittle at the Apollo in Hammersmith. It could well take at least three years for the many producers to get their money back on a show which effectively stars the late Jim Henson, whose Muppet Workshop has now provided larger-than-life performing seals, hippos, pink sea-snails that fly around the auditorium, and all manner of other eccentric beasts. …

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