Review by Daz Gale
There's a bright golden haze in the West End as last years critically acclaimed (and possibly soon to be Olivier award winning) production from the Young Vic transfers to the West End for a six month reign at the Wyndham's Theatre. Whereas last years production worked due to its choice to have the audience surrounding the action, this year it has moved to a proscenium approach. With this new staging and different cast members, would it be able to recreate the magic of the Young Vic production or would this incarnation just be... ok?
The first musical written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Oklahoma debuted on Broadway in 1943 and in the West End in 1947. Countless revivals followed including the latest, dubbed ‘Sexy Oklahoma’ which debuted on Broadway in 2019. It tells the story of Laurey Williams as both cowboy Curly McLain and farmhand Jud Fry try to win her affection. Elsewhere Ado Annie finds herself in the centre of another love triangle – though not all participants are as equally invested in that one.
This latest production transforms the Wyndham’s Theatre into the town square. While the Young Vic immersed the audience into the action, surrounding three sides of the theatre, this is a far more conventional approach with all the action taking place on stage in front of you. While I enjoyed the immersive nature of the Young Vic production, I found it easier to follow the story this time around, knowing I could see every inch of the stage at all times so wouldn’t be missing something. There were notably elements of the production I hadn’t noted last year, whether they were added for this latest version or were just an issue with my sightline last year.
Designed by Lael Jellinek and Grace Laubacher, the aesthetic of this production of Oklahoma! Is extremely unique in its approach and leads you to believe you are at the box social with them. Still glorious to witness even watching from a distance, though be warned if you dare to sit in the front row, you might get wet… or sat on. John Heginbothams choreography is another highlight in a production full of strong elements, with the bigger dance numbers coming alive with highly satisfying movement.
It's safe to say this reinvention of Oklahoma! Is bold and director Daniel Fish pulls no punches with his choices in creating maximum impact. The decision to create two moments in the show with complete blackouts creating an eery and uncomfortable setting is one of the most unique experiences you are likely to have in the theatre but one that heightens the senses to create a moment (or two) you won’t forget in a hurry. With that in mind, the requirements from lighting designer Scott Zielinski are exceptional. Versatile in its approach, the audience is as lit up as the stage in certain moments, the stage is bathed in a dim light at others and then there are those aforementioned blackouts.
Most of the cast from last years production have returned this year with many of them now enjoying Olivier nominations for their performances. If that leads you to believe the cast are all outstanding here, you really wouldn’t be wrong. Anoushka Lucas is mesmerising in her turn as Laurey, playing the role with an understated nonchalance at times, all the while retaining focus and making the audience fall in love with her like her two suitors. Arthur Darvil is fantastic as Curly McLain, albeit a little quiet at times (at least on the night I went anyway) while Patrick Vaill is an undoubted standout with an emotional turn as the complicated Jud Fry. One scene featuring a video close up of Patricks face is a true testament to his acting ability with every pained facial expression saying more than the few words he gets in the show ever can.
It’s the other love triangle that really captured my interest, thanks to the more carefree and humorous aspects to it. New to the cast this year is Georgina Onuorah who wows with her take on Ado Annie. Gorgeous vocals, flawless comic timing and unrivalled stage presence is a consistent joy to watch as is her chemistry with both her suitors. Stavros Demetraki gets some of the funniest moments with his turn as Ali Hakim but it’s James Patrick Davis who really steals the scenes as Will Parker. The loveable but not too bright character never fails to elicit a smile on your face as he tries to win over Ado and seemingly messes it up every time. Hilarious and heart-warming, his turn in the show is one of the most memorable and deserves equal recognition to his co-stars.
Another highlight among the stunning cast is Liza Sadovy as Aunt Eller. With a fantastic no-nonsense approach, her sometimes clipped delivery may not give much away in terms of the characters emotions but speaks volumes for the ability of Lizas talents. Already an Olivier winner for her time in Cabaret and now nominated again for this role, she consistently proves herself to be one of the finest talents the West End has and is utterly captivating once again here. Rebekah Hinds also delights with a small but definitely memorable role as Gertie Cummings, with impeccable comic timing adding to her charm and a laugh that will haunt your thoughts for the foreseeable future.
The classic musical numbers that litter Oklahoma! are played out in a way that brings them up to date while retaining what has made them timeless classics. Daniel Kluger’s orchestrations and arrangements ensures ‘Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’ and ‘Oklahoma’ are every bit as satisfying as you expect. Other musical highlights include the rip-roaring ‘Kansas City’, Georgina’s big musical number ‘I Cain’t Say No’ and the rousing ‘The Farmer and the Cowman’ all proving why these songs have stood the test of time for 80 years now.
This isn’t the Oklahoma! you grew up with. This production is as bold and risky as it gets and in doing so may prove divisive. That is one of the elements that makes this such an interesting show to watch as it may provoke completely different reactions from people who already know and love this show. I must admit certain elements didn’t quite land with me on a personal level – act 2’s ‘Dream Ballet’ namely. While objectively I appreciated what they were going for with it, personally I struggled to connect with it – though seeing people in the neighbouring seats reactions to it was another showcase for how beautifully subjective theatre can be.
This production of Oklahoma! really is unstoppable. If it wowed audiences in London last year, this West End transfer is only going to do that on a bigger level. If I was worried about how it would transfer in this more conventional setting, I surprisingly found myself enjoying it even more this time around. Thankfully, it still manages to retain the elements of what makes this version so unique while adding new elements that made me fall in love with it more than I had last year. With a fantastic cast, classic songs and brave direction, there really was no need to worry how this version would transfer. You’re doing fine, Oklahoma.
Oklahoma! plays at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 2nd September. Tickets from www.OklahomaWestEnd.com
Photos by Marc Brenner