KUED to air 2 landmark musicals: 'Company' and 'Oklahoma!'

Published: Saturday, Nov. 2 2013 1:30 p.m. MDT

The cast of the Royal National Theatre stages "Oklahoma!"

Courtesy PBS

When “Oklahoma!” opened in 1943 and “Company” premiered in 1970, both were unlike Broadway audiences had ever seen before. Each broke the mold on what musical theater could be.

As part of the PBS Fall Arts Festival, KUED will air the two shows on back-to-back Fridays at 8 p.m.: “Company” on Nov. 8 and “Oklahoma!” on Nov. 15.

While the two shows are highly significant historically, neither staging is a museum-piece replication of the originals, it should be noted. And neither is a new production: “Oklahoma!” was taped in 1999 (and available on video at the end of 2003), and “Company” was an April 2011 production (released on video late last year).

Along with introducing the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein and some of the most lyrically gorgeous songs ever composed, “Oklahoma!” was the first show in which the songs and the dances advance the story, and it initiated a truly American art form.

For his Royal National Theatre staging, director Trevor Nunn layered a modern sensibility to “Oklahoma!” And as hard as it is to conceptualize, Hugh Jackman was an unknown, outside of his native Australia. It wasn’t until a year later that he became a household name with “Wolverine.”

And this “Oklahoma!” is undeniably Jackman’s show. Bringing a delicate realism to the role of Curly, Jackman slips seamlessly from dialogue to song and back so that it seems the most natural thing in the world. Plus, there's a radiant confidence and joy in his performance that is all too rare.

Jackman is matched by Shuler Hensey’s mesmeric performance as Jud Fry, showing the overpowering sadness of the tormented man. Rather than duplicating Agnes de Mille’s choreography, Susan Stroman takes a bold, fresh approach that is stunning. Josafina Gabrielle as Laurey dances her own dream ballet, and Jimmy Johnston is a rope-twirling, lassoing, back-flipping standout as Will Parker.

You’ll fall madly in love with “Oklahoma!” all over again.

The production of “Company” is not nearly as impressive. It’s further from definitive than it is closer to a novelty.

Director Lonny Price assembled a grab bag of performers, ranging from TV veterans to major musical theater stars and included performers straddling film and dramatic stage. The natural result is the complex, textually challenging compositions receive short shrift.

“Company” advanced the “integrated musical” of “Oklahoma!” to establish the “concept musical.” The newest convention is vaguely defined as a show with short vignettes, and as much importance is placed on the unique manner of its presentation as on its content.

Performers like Stephen Colbert and Jon Cryer play versions of their TV personalities, and Martha Plimpton is simply annoying. The Broadway stars hit their marks and shimmer: Viewers will be captivated by Anika Noni Rose’s “Another Hundred People,” Kate Finneran’s “Getting Married Today” and Patti LuPone usurping “The Ladies Who Lunch” as her own from Elaine Stritch’s searing portrait.

Neil Patrick Harris brings charm to the role of Robert, who fans know alternately as Bobby, Bobby Baby, Bobby Bubbi, Robby and Robert Darling. The trademark Stephen Sondheim character must simultaneously show fear of and desire for commitment. Harris is competent but lacks the emotional complexity to make “Being Alive” a heart-wrenching cry for help.

If only PBS had rebroadcast the earlier 2006 Broadway revival of “Company.” Raul Esparza is genius as Robert and leads a cast fully endowed to reveal Sondheim’s brilliance.

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