An Oklahoma! that doesn’t spare the American dream
“Take a classic, keep the text and the songs, but find a more complex and probing musical which shows us part of American history, while throwing light on, and asking questions about, the contemporary issues that face us all.”
Programme note by Paul Ibell.
Everyone remembers Oklahoma! A jolly, bouncy musical with a hint of darkness, first performed in New York in 1943, making landfall here in 1947, filmed in 1955, with some of the most memorable songs in American musicals: “Oh What a Beautiful Morning”, “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, “People Will Say we’re in Love”, “The Farmer and the Cowman”.
In the new revival now at Wyndham’s Theatre, the hint of darkness becomes a roar, and it is allowed, even encouraged, to overwhelm the jollity. Right from the start, when a surly cast sit about watching Curly (Arthur Darvill) sing “Oh What Beautiful Morning” as though the morning were anything but beautiful, it is clear that director Daniel Fish, for all his kind programme notes about the show’s original creators, is in no mood to compromise with them.
When Curly and Laurey (Anoushka Lucas) sing “People Will Say We’re in Love”, people are much more likely to say they’re in lust. Here is not the conventional Hollywood lovers, full of ethereal devotion, but urgent sexual demands on full display. There are no prim advances, no shy smiles. Early in the show, Ado Annie (Georgina Onuorah) comes down to the front row of the auditorium to smooch with a male member of the audience.
When it’s not sexy, it’s often edgy. The song “Poor Jud is Daid”, in which Curly tries to get the hired hand, Jud (Patrick Vaill), to imagine all the wonderful things people would say about him if he killed himself, is sung in total darkness, with the faces of the two men shown in a huge back projection.
Jud is presented much more sympathetically than usual, which is good, because it makes the point that Jud really is an outsider, and that is how outsiders are treated. He is no more the real villain of this piece than Shylock is the villain of The Merchant of Venice.
Does it work? Yes, mostly. Don’t expect the pleasant and relatively undemanding evening you might have watching a rerun of the film on television. But do expect a creditable attempt to show what life might have been like in rural America in the nineteenth century, with all its prejudice and beastliness. Do expect a series of charming, tuneful and characterful performances, from all the cast. I particularly enjoyed Stavros Demetraki’s Ali Hakim, with his ultimately unsuccessful attempts to evade matrimony, and the matriarch Aunt Ella (Liza Sadovy) .
And it helps that the songs, if not sung quite as we expect, are always sung beautifully. Whatever else they do, this cast is not going to murder your favourite song.
The one thing that really doesn’t work is the dream sequence at the start of Act Two. A young woman comes on wearing a white slip with the words DREAM BABY DREAM in big black capitals, and proceeds to dance, very well, to screechy electronic music, while the director has smoke blown in his audience’s face and orange lights shone directly into their eyes, while riding boots cascade from the ceiling.
I have now read the programme, so I know it’s meant to symbolize the choices Laurie has to make. I had no idea. I did not even realise that the dancer was supposed to be Laurie. Marie-Astrid Mence is a very good dancer, but looks nothing like Ms Lucas.
But the momentum quickly picks up again with a splendid, rollicking rendering of “The Farmer and the Cowman” which is as close to how we remember it as anything in this production, before galloping towards a heart-wrenching conclusion.
Original Musical Numbers
Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’
The Surrey with the Fringe on Top
I Cain’t Say No
I Cain’t Say No and Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’
Many a New Day
It’s a Scandal! It’s a Outrage!
People Will Say We’re in Love
Pore Jud Is Daid
The Farmer and the Cowman
All Er Nuthin’
People Will Say We’re in Love (Reprise)
Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’
and People Will Say We’re in Love
Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the book “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynne Riggs
Original Choreography by Agnes de Mille
Directed by Daniel Fish and Jordan Fien
Directors : Daniel Fish and Jordan Fien
Choreographer: John Heginbotham
Co-Set Designer: Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher
Musical Director: Tom Brady
Lighting Designer: Scott Zielinski
Costume Designer: Teresa Wadden
Sound Designer: Drew Levy
Projection Design: Joshua Therson
Supervisor: Daniel Kluger
Supervisor, Vocal Arrangements:
Running Time: Three hours including an interval
Booking until 2nd September 2023
Charing Cross Road
London WC2H 0DA
Telehone: 0844 482 5151
Tube: Leicester Square
Telephone: 0344 871 7628
Reviewed by Francis Beckett
on 25th February 2023