At least this version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! proves a production of it does not necessarily need a vast and complicated set. Through the use of CGI (that is, collective group imagination), the images evoked by ‘Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’’ are realised by way of music and lyrics alone. This very wooden-looking village hall might well have been set in England, but for one thing: guns, guns, and more guns. Somehow, it screams ‘America!’ more than a huge Stars and Stripes flag would have done, and during the course of a highly seductive evening – the flirtatiousness being considerably less innocent and less gullible than every other production of Oklahoma! I’ve seen – it becomes clear that the lessons of the dangers of flying bullets still haven’t been learned, eighty years after the show premiered on Broadway.
The old-school kind of CGI comes in handy particularly in the second half, when the production bizarrely deploys various techniques to prevent the audience from seeing what is happening on stage. The ‘Dream Ballet’, which happens in this production post-interval, is barely visible thanks to a deliberate overabundance of theatrical smoke. There’s even a second round of smoke to ensure the following scene is also translucent. In another scene, the lighting is so dark only the silhouettes of Curly McLain (an earnest Arthur Darvill) and Laurey Williams (Anoushka Lucas) can be seen. And in two other scenes, one in each half, there is complete darkness – the second one, rather ironically for a production that is otherwise quite lustful, shields the audience’s eyes from bedroom (or perhaps barn) activity between Will Parker (James Patrick Davis) and Ado Annie (Georgina Onuorah).
A brief moment of audience interaction early in the performance (as ever with live entertainment, sit in the front row at your own risk) is indicative of the sort of intimacy the production must have had in its earlier in-the-round incarnation at the Young Vic. The show’s energy doesn’t bounce in the same way in a proscenium arch theatre, even if the set (Lael Jellinek and Grace Laubacher) extends far into the stalls. The distancing effect created by the smoke and extended blackouts doesn’t help either.
The show’s title musical number, meanwhile, is performed with such full-throated intensity that lines like “plenty of heart and plenty of hope” and “the land we belong to is grand” come across as laced with bitter contempt and derision rather than something aspirational and patriotic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it’s what the production seems to be going for – an analysis of the American Dream rather than merely assenting to it. Or, to put it another way, if you like to watch musicals by sitting back and letting proceedings watch over you, this isn’t the show for you.
Darvill’s Curly, even though there’s a splendid nine-piece band under the direction of Huw Evans, strums his own guitar more often than not. There’s an edginess to this production, which occasionally overdoes it with ear-splitting electric guitars that would give We Will Rock You a run for its money. Jud Fry, the antagonist of the show, is portrayed magnificently by Patrick Vaill, suitably menacing and determined – and with nuance, not angrily yelling every line, but inducing fear with calm precision.
There is some humour here and there, even if it is dated – Davis’ Will has the kind of mental arithmetic ability that calls to mind certain politicians, while self-declared peddler Ali Hakim (Stavros Demetraki) finds married life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Gertie Cummings (Rebekah Hinds), a local farmhand, had one of those laughs I found myself laughing at, without having any idea what she herself was laughing about – and that works just fine in a show that is otherwise filled with tension and frustration.
You could hear a pin drop during the quietest moments of spoken dialogue at the performance I attended, such was the show’s ability to engage. I also appreciate the production’s decision not to lace every moment of spoken word with background music and sound effects, letting the conversations and the actors delivering the lines create an atmosphere appropriate to each scene. Raw, gritty and unique, it’s not a perfect re-imagination of a classic musical, but it is a bold one.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Forget what you think it is… this is Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! as you’ve never seen it before – re-orchestrated and reimagined for the 21st century.
The visionary musical centres on the farmgirl Laurey and two men that vie for her affections; the perfect cowboy Curly, and the outsider Jud. As she decides who she wants, her fellow townspeople also show their true sympathies and prejudices. Daniel Fish’s production brings out the dark and sexy side of the classic and sunny story, without changing a word of the original script.
Cast: Raphael Bushay (Mike), Arthur Darvill (Curly McLain), James Patrick Davis (Will Parker), Stavros Demetraki (Ali Hakim), Greg Hicks (Andrew Carnes), Rebekah Hinds (Gertie Cummings), Anoushka Lucas (Laurey Williams), Marie-Astrid Mence (Lead Dancer), Phillip Olagoke (Cord Elam), Georgina Onuorah (Ado Annie), Liza Sadovy (Aunt Eller) and Patrick Vaill (Jud Fry).
Wyndham’s Theatre, London
16 Feb 2023 –
2h 50m (incl. 1 interval)