Oklahoma! (Young Vic)

Posted: May 9, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Marc Brenner

Music: Richard Rodgers

Book and lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II

Directors: Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

In 1943, during the darkest days of World War II, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! premiered on Broadway, promising beautiful mornings, fresh beginnings and brighter tomorrows. The show captivated audiences and transformed musical theatre, but can it still work its magic almost 80 years later?

The Young Vic’s auditorium is re-designed to look like a school hall and there is no room for wide open prairies in this transfer of Daniel Fish’s stripped back Tony Award winning 2019 revival, now co-directed with Jordan Fein. When Arthur Darvill steps out to perform the show’s famous opening song, Oh What a Beautiful Morning, the contrast with Hugh Jackman roaming the vast Olivier stage, in Trevor Nunn’s 1998 National Theatre production, could not be starker. Oscar Hammerstein II bases his book on the 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, which follows the lives of a pioneering community in the American West as their territory progresses towards full Statehood.

With a guitar hanging from his shoulders, Darvill looks more like a travelling minstrel than a cowboy and he gives the character of Curly McLain a sinister look which significantly alters the hero/villain balance between him and his rival for the affections of the fair Laurey (Anoushka Lucas). A parallel, more comical love triangle sees the dim witted Will Parker (James Davis) vying with the wily Ali Hakim (Stavros Demetraki) to win, or perhaps lose, the hand of the formidable Ado Annie. Marisha Wallace’s Annie is, emphatically, a girl who can’t say no, giving a powerhouse rendition of her key song to prove it. Liza Sadovy is a stabilising presence as Aunt Eller, the wise head in the community who bravely brokers peace between the farmers and the cowmen.

Weaving dark themes into even the fluffiest storylines would become one of Hammerstein’s trademarks and, in Oklahoma!, the darkness is channeled through the character of Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill, attired in black, looking sullen and despondent), a loser in life and in his love rivalry with Curly. Many productions have seen Jud as a simple baddie, a stock character brought in to create dramatic conflict and then readily disposed of. Here he represents an acknowledgement that, whenever mankind moves forward, someone gets left behind and he is viewed altogether more sympathetically. It becomes crystal clear that Hammerstein is reminding us that American society may be built on good Christian principles, but violence and injustice are also embedded firmly in its foundations.

In this product, dark means very, very dark, as in the pivotal confrontation between Curly and Jud, projected with menacing close-ups onto a large wall. In the second act, the darkness very briefly drains the show of its momentum and it makes transitions back to a celebratory mood feel awkward, but, overall, the directors’ bold emphasis pays rich dividends.

A company of 12 is unusually small for this show, but, when the house lights are up, the audience blends into the action. John Heginbotham’s choreography (from Agnes de Mille’s original) is somewhat cramped by the first act staging, but the second act overture features a solo ballet, danced with enchanting freedom by Marie-Astrid Mence and, then, a rousing The Farmer and the Cowman brings the show to exuberant life.

Arguably the most radical innovations come with the total reimagining of the songs in orchestrations and arrangements by Daniel Kluger. A small band of seven sits inside the performance area, playing instruments including a banjo and electric guitars and embracing styles from Country and Western to Soul, Heavy Metal to Gospel, with many more in between. The surprises seem endless and, if composer Richard Rodgers is turning in his grave, it can only be to join in a toast to the durability and versatility of his marvellous score.

Yes, there are times when the corn is definitely “as high as an elephant’s eye” and, yes, parts of this revival are less uplifting than some may expect, but Oklahoma!’s depiction of honest values in simpler times proves once more that it has enduring appeal.

Performance date: 7 May 2022

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