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Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! – Wyndham’s Theatre, London

Never mess with a classic. Seriously, never ever mess with a classic. Words should be written ten feet high in every drama writer’s workshop throughout the world. Of course, it’s rubbish. Shakespeare is often tinkered with for a new take on old production The version of 1984 I saw a few years ago had a different opening and ending to George Orwell’s original story, and the list goes on. However, when the show in question is one that pretty much defined the musical theatre genre, you tinker at your peril. So, I was intrigued to see what had been done to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! which after a very successful run at the Young Vic, has now transferred into Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End.

Arthur Darvill (Curl McLain) and Anoushka Lucas (Laurey Williams) in Oklahoma! Photo by Marc Brenner.
Arthur Darvill (Curl McLain) and Anoushka Lucas (Laurey Williams) in Oklahoma! Photo by Marc Brenner.

1906 and Oklahoma Indian Territory is poised to join the Union as a state in its own right. Whilst the locals are very excited, they are still leading their normal lives. If you’re a cowman like Curly McLain (Arthur Darvill) then that means moving cattle from place to place along with trying to find yourself a wife. Maybe the niece of farmer Aunt Eller (Liza Sadovy), the lovely Miss Laurey Williams (Anoushka Lucas) has taken his eye and maybe she feels the same way. As Curly arrives at the farm on the day of the Box Social and the two of them bicker there is definitely something in the air. Something that is noticed by farm hand Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) who also has feelings for Laurey and has invited her to travel with him/be his date for the event that night. As well as this potential love triangle, there is another as cattleman Will Parker (James Patrick Davis) has returned home ready to claim his bride, farmer’s daughter Ado Annie (Georgina Onuorah). Unfortunately, while he was away earning the fifty dollars, he needed to pay Annie’s pa, she seems to have got herself engaged to reluctant potential bridegroom Ali Hakim (Stavros Demetraki). With so much love and tension in the air, tonight’s Box Social is going to be one that nobody will forget in a very long time.

Those of you that have seen previous versions of Oklahoma!, either on the stage or in the 1955 Oscar-winning movie need to forget everything you know about the show right now. I had heard that Director Daniel Fish’s version was different from any other, but nothing could prepare me for how different. The script and the songs are the same, but the story is very different from the original in its focus and emotions. Entering the really, really bright auditorium two things strike you immediately, wood and guns. The stage, orchestra area and even the boxes are covered in blond wood from floor to ceiling. Adorning the wood are the guns, lined up in racks as ornamentation but also ready should they be needed, I counted around 120 shotguns which was slightly disconcerting. The stage is open and has two long tables on it with wooden chairs around it. As set designs go, this one by Lael Jellinek and Grace Laubacher really sets the scene and tells the audience this is something different.

There’s no overture, the cast just come onto the stage, sit around the table and Curly breaks into ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’. I can’t really go into too much detail after this because it would spoil the show for those that haven’t seen it, but as I say, this is not a traditional version. Let me give you one example, which may just blow your mind. Jud Fry is the villain, always has been and always will, for ever and ever amen. Except, quite early in this production – particularly during ‘Poor Jud is Dead’ – I started to feel sorry for Jud, the outcast, neither a cowman nor a proper farmer, something that really becomes evident during the auction. I thought a huge mistake had been made at the end of the first act as the ballet sequence was missing but instead, it opened the second, with a single dancer, Marie-Astrid Mence, in a very modern routine, choreographed by John Heginbotham, using the original score totally re-imagined by Daniel Kluger for the brave new world that will follow Oklahoma’s elevation to Statehood.

Performance-wise there is a first-rate cast of true professionals. Arthur Darvill and Anoushka Lucas are just right as Curly and Laura with real chemistry making the characters feel very alive. However, my performance of the night award goes to Georgina Onuorah as Ado Annie who takes the rather cutesy song ‘I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No’ and makes it into something full of sexual innuendo and sass. It would be impossible to mention the cast without talking about Patrick Vaill as Jud Fry. Vaill originated the role of Jud and really knows his character. Even when doing nothing, just sitting and brooding, Vail really shows Jud’s personality and emotional state. It is a marvellous performance that, along with the rest of the cast, really changes how you will perceive Jud.

There is much more I could say about Oklahoma!, but I can’t because it would give too much away. I will say the costumes by Terese Wadden are fascinating being both historically accurate(ish) and very contemporary. Whilst the big dance numbers are gone, the twelve-strong cast and nine-strong band, under MD Huw Evans, really bring a fascinating and totally absorbing interpretation of the Oklahoma story to the stage. Interestingly, at the end of the show, I didn’t leave straight away because I wanted to try and marshal my own thoughts and feelings and ended up having a long chat with two complete strangers about what he had just seen.

Summing up, his version of Oklahoma! is not just different from those that have come before, it is DIFFERENT!!! And it really works. It’s a story of love, relationships and being an outsider in a very stratified social system. There are shocks and surprises, amazing use of lighting, including scenes taking place in the dark, and ultimately, this production, while not necessarily pleasing R&H purists, shows that there are times when messing with a classic not only works, but elevates the story to a whole new level. Superb.

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

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).

OKLAHOMA!
Wyndham’s Theatre, London
16 Feb 2023 –
2h 50m (incl. 1 interval)

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