Oklahoma! is a classic American musical, taking place in the early 1900s. It primarily revolves around Curly Mclain (Arthur Darvill), Laurey Williams (Anoushka Lucas) and Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill); their interactions, intimacies and conflicts, and how these ultimately lead to the union of two individuals and one’s tragic end.
When Darvill’s loveable Curly and the cast begin the show with “Oh, what a beautiful mornin’”, nothing appears out of the ordinary. But the audience soon learns that this is not the happy-go-lucky show they know. Unlike previous versions, there are no obvious antagonists here. In this revival Jud, a hired farmhand, is more akin to a quiet and misunderstood individual, and is neither intimidating nor sinister, as he is usually portrayed. It is precisely this that creates a sense of sympathy toward the character and emphasises how flawed the trial at the end is. Although the show finishes with the usual happy musical number “Oklahoma!” there isn’t a sense of joy, and simply a feeling of injustice for Jud.
Darvill is a force to be reckoned with, showcasing both his vocal consistency and his marvellous guitar skills. Vaill, having played Jud Fry in every iteration of this revival to date, brings a classical sounding vocal to the cast, best demonstrated in “Lonely Room”. This is in stark contrast to his co-stars, Darvill and Lucas, who use a more contemporary style of singing. While Darvill’s skills are appreciated, given the presence of a band it is questionable whether he needs to play the guitar for most of his numbers. The interpretative dance sequence by Dream Laurey in her trance state is one of the unique elements of Oklahoma! The dance is performed by Marie-Astrid Mence, and remains a piece that distinguishes itself from the rest of the production. However, it is not entirely clear why this is not performed by the same actor that plays Laurey, nor the significance of the falling boots in the dance.
The darker elements of the musical are spaced out with moments of relief, brought about by the subplot and the general horniness of the entire cast. The love triangle among Ado Annie (Georgina Onuorah), Will Parker (James Patrick Davis) and Ali Hakim (Stavros Demetraki) is a funfest of sexual desires in a literal sense. There is hardly a moment that these three can keep their hands off each other. The trio are a menace to the audience sitting in the front row, who are the victims of winks, flirtations and also splashes of water. However, spectators from further back can safely enjoy the comedy that results at the expense of the front row viewer. The three are later joined by Gertie (Helen K Wint, understudy), who adds a comically nightmare-inducing laugh to the mix.
The lighting used in this production is highly innovative and redefines the tone of the story almost entirely by itself. The auditorium is not dimmed when the performance starts and the colours on stage are vivid. The auditorium and the stage are plunged into pitch darkness in two scenes, and even the emergency lights are turned off for these sections. In the complete blackout and absence of any explicit explanation, the exchange in Act I could be interpreted literally as Curly taunting Jud or a metaphorical exploration into Jud’s inner psyche. The extreme close up camera work on Curly and Jud following the blackout is also extremely harrowing, with intricate details of the actors’ expressions projected to the back of the stage.
This version of Oklahoma! is an exceptionally bold revival. Somehow, without changing the text and songs of the original musical, using only new stage directions and lighting to achieve an almost complete overhaul of the tonal narrative. Director Daniel Fish, creatives and the cast must be congratulated for changing nothing and yet everything through pure innovation.
Book and music by: Rodgers and Hammerstein
Directed by: Daniel Fish
Musical Direction by: Huw Evans
Choreography by: John Heginbotham
Lighting Design by: Scott Zielinski
Produced by: Eva Price, Sonia Friedman Productions and Michael Harrison Entertainment
Oklahoma! plays at Wyndham’s Theatre until 2 September 2023. Further information and bookings can be fuond here.