Oklahoma! ★★★★★

Oklahoma! is given a radical reworking that reveals many untapped dramatic riches in the 80-year-old musical.

The Midwestern state of Oklahoma is famed for its susceptibility to tornadoes so perhaps it is no surprise that  Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 8-decade-old musical was long overdue to be hit by a creative tornado. And that is exactly what Daniel Fish‘s bold, radical reimagining of Oklahoma! feels like. 

Over the years, countless school and am-dram productions, coupled with the Oscar-winning 1955 movie version, the musical has acquired a sustained reputation as a charming, wholesome piece of entertainment. With successful runs in New York and then at the Young Vic under its belt, the genius of this production is that it offers an edgy, unrecognisable reinterpretation without changing a word!

All images by Marc Brenner

With the house lights staying on full glare and the ensemble lazing about gloomily on the pared-back wooden dancehall set, it is an ostensibly-different Oklahoma! from the off. Plot wise, there’s not much to the 1943 musical other than the rather decorous romances of two parallel love triangles.  Here the director nails the monotony of small-town rural Americana with little to occupy the residents of Claremont other than who is thirsting after whom. Yes, the horn is as high as an elephant’s eye in this libidinous retake. 

Traditionally, the central love triangle of farm girl Laurey Williams and her two rival suitors – the good-natured, handsome Curly and the snarling, sinister Jud – is a saccharine, predictable affair. In this revival, the dynamics are more morally ambiguous and all the better for it. Arthur Darvill‘s Curly treads the line between swagger and arrogance, between Alpha male and an outright bully. He’s someone used to “Everything’s goin‘ my way“. As much a music front man as a frontiersman, with his guitar he channels something akin to Ricky Wilson or George Ezra albeit with a darker undercurrent. Patrick Vaill‘s outstanding, compelling Jud offers perhaps the most dramatic character departure. His farm hand is a pained and painful outsider. There is a forlorn, awkwardness to his portrayal that seems to verge upon incel energy.  

The smokehouse scene where the supposedly heroic Curly suggests Jud should kill himself is usually glossed over as an inconvenience to the chirpy folksiness of the show. This production plunges into the darkness of the scene – literally. Played in pitch blackness – you cannot see the hand in front of your face for an uncomfortable period of time – all you hear is Curly sadistically taunting him. Finally a camera is thrust into Jud’s wounded face and that extreme close-up is projected onto the back wall. A perfectly-timed tear speaks volumes of how misunderstood Jud is and makes us as an audience question our loyalties.

That neither of her two suitors are seen particularly sympathetically casts Laurey’s choice in a new light. Rather than a coquettish flirt, Anoushka Lucas‘ suitably ambivalent Laurey veers between sexual longing and a dead-eyed practicality. The male bidding for the women’s picnic baskets illustrates the female commodification within this society and Lucas’ seeming blankness on the surface reflects her inner struggle for agency in the face of limited options. 

Director Daniel Fish thankfully isn’t interested in changing the musical for change sake. The more comedic love triangle remains a laugh-out-loud delight. A show-stealing Georgina Onuorah sizzles as the concupiscent Ado Annie. With her exuberant and unapologetic sexual appetite, I Cain’t Say No has never been such a defiant assertion of a woman owning her sexuality. Onuorah’s stunning powerhouse vocals match her exhilarating stage presence. James Patrick Davis as the adorably dim Will and Stavros Demetraki as the slippery peddler Ali Hakim are the perfect foils for Annie’s rapacious carnal desires. 

It isn’t just the text of the play that has a transformative new take. The oh-so-familiar score is reimagined as something unexpected. Dispensing with a traditional musical theatre orchestra, MD Huw Evans‘ 8-strong band deploys banjos, accordion, pedal steel guitars and even mandolins to give those classic songs an entirely fresh flavour. While The Surrey with the Fringe on Top once reflected the beat of a horse canter, it now pulses with an unmistakable copulative rhythm. The repeated line “Don’t you wish you’d go on forever?” that Curly suggestively puts to Laurey is clearly no longer about a buggy ride. 

The radical reinterpretation of this production continues into a stark, shocking reworked ending. It’s heart-pumping stuff that eradicates any musical-theatre hokiness in favour of a clear-eyed examination of the brutality and ruthlessness needed for a pioneering community to thrive. The ready dishonesty of the townsfolk closing ranks to protect their own comes as quite the revelation. The canonical sunniness of the final rendition of the show’s title song is replaced by a darker, equivocal hue. Once a toe-tapping anthem to celebrate the imminent accession of the State to the Union, Oklahoma now feels dubious and bittersweet. The final line “You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma, okay” rings hollow compared to the ugly truth this production presents.

There is no doubt Daniel Fish’s production will prove divisive. All ‘er Nuthin’ some might say. Lovers of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, traditionally presented, will probably hate this version. If you like your musical theatre to be feel-good and unthreatening, then this almost certainly won’t be for you.

For the rest of us, Oklahoma! is a sizzling, fearless, pounding exploration of the show’s dark heart which it turns out was always there. A flawless cast, a stunning band of musicians and a powerful reinterpretation provide a rewarding and thrilling evening of musical theatre. 

We’re just a review site who cain’t say ‘No’ – an unmissable ★★★★★ 5 stars

Oklahoma Tickets

Oklahoma! is currently running at Wyndham’s Theatre until 2 September 2023

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