OKLAHOMA! at Wyndham’s Theatre
“The diverse cast of this Oklahoma! are a powerhouse of talents that make you rethink every line of Hammerstein’s lyrics”
Daniel Fish’s vividly reimagined Oklahoma!, now playing at Wyndham’s Theatre, is a many layered, complex, and somewhat melancholy take on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s well loved classic. The musical has been recreated in ways that make this Oklahoma! both funny and touching. But it is a radical rethink of the sunny American optimism that we commonly associate with musicals like Oklahoma! Fish’s approach is refreshing. It’s also an authentic nod to the problematic heart that exists at the core of every Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
The plot of Oklahoma! is a conventional love story. The main characters, Laurey and Curly, are negotiating the details of their eventual partnership. It seems to revolve around whether Curly will ask Laurey to the box social and whether he can take her there in appropriate style. Since Curly is a cowhand with little to show except a cheerful disposition, Laurey doubts his ability to make good on his promises. His rival Jud sees an opportunity to win Laurey for himself, which throws Laurey into a spin of indecision. The main plot is echoed by a comic subplot concerning a girl named Ado Annie, who changes her mind about her suitors the moment one leaves the room, and another enters. What turns the story of Oklahoma! into a much loved classic is the genius of Richard Rodgers’ music, and Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics. Songs like Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’, I’m a Girl That Just Can’t Say No, and the title song Oklahoma! have a freshness and originality that turn this homespun tale into an anthem celebrating American inventiveness and a can-do attitude that carried the United States out of the Great Depression, and through the Second World War.
Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! is many miles from the home imagined by Rodgers and Hammerstein in the early 1940s. Their Oklahoma! was inspired by Lynn Riggs’ play Green Grow The Lilacs, which looked back to a more troubled era in American history, where western homesteads were being established, often at the point of a gun. Lael Jellinek and Grace Laubacher’s set is a bright sun drenched space that looks like the setting for a church social, complete with gun racks on the walls, and cheap and cheerful tinsel fringes hanging from above. This version of Oklahoma! is one of tense interiors. The outdoors exists in a space we cannot really appreciate, unless it is through Scott Zielinski’s lighting, which perfectly captures the unyielding brightness of the Oklahoma plains. With such a visual reminder of conflict established right at the beginning, we’re ready for the messier battles that erupt as Laurey has to choose between two very different suitors.
The genius of this production is that Fish is not afraid to ditch the sunny optimism for uncertain, conflicted characters. They know farming in this unforgiving landscape is going to be a struggle, full of compromises with people with unknown histories, and no guarantees of success. The diverse cast of this Oklahoma! are a powerhouse of talents that make you rethink every line of Hammerstein’s lyrics. Arthur Darvill’s Curly is the portrayal of a man with a complicated future, not a past. As we find out. Darvill’s musical talents are a revelation, and give us a reason to root for his Curly. Anoushka Lucas’ Laurey has a voice that transforms the part, as does Georgina Onuorah, playing Ado Annie. Musically, the cast doesn’t put a foot wrong. Stavros Demetraki as Ali Hakim and Liza Sadovy provide the perfect comic foils to all this conflict. And at the heart of the conflict is a truly memorable Jud, played by Patrick Vaill. Vaill radiates a brooding and tragic melancholy throughout, foreshadowing the messy outcome of Curly and Laurey’s wedding day.
Daniel Kluger’s musical rethink of Rodgers’ score is likewise a revelation. Instead of a big Broadway orchestra, we have a small group of musicians playing instruments that are appropri-ate for a “box social.” The interaction between singers and musicians bring everyone together in a lively exchange that makes the music sound modern and contemporary. If the intervention of electric guitars are key moments in the drama are harsh and uncompromising, it’s appropriate to Fish’s multifaceted reinterpretation of Oklahoma! The musicians manage their musical transitions with courage and commitment, even through the Dream Ballet, which again, is a radical rethink of Agnes de Mille’s choreography. John Heginbotham’s choreography sketches details, and sets a powerful mood, but it’s the music and singing that claims the attention.
There are some weak spots in this Oklahoma! The pace is very slow at times, and it can feel as though the audience is present at a drama, rather than a musical. There are scenes where the audience is plunged into darkness. It seems an unnecessary intensification of the tensions already present on stage. But when all is said and done, this production of Oklahoma! raises good questions about American history, and its tendency to mythologize a past that was violent and complicated. It’s all there in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original production, and Daniel Fish knows how to draw our attention to these subtle clues. For that reason, and for the wonderful performances, do not miss this production of Oklahoma!
Reviewed on 28th February 2023
by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Marc Brenner
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Life of Pi | ★★★★★ | November 2021
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