There's a bright golden show in the West End as Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic musical Oklahoma! makes its triumphant return following a critically acclaimed run on Broadway. First debuting on Broadway in 1943, this new production (dubbed "Sexy Oklahoma!") first appeared in 2019. Turning the show on its head and challenging the expectations of those who know and love the original show, the risk paid off, earning it Tony awards - but can it be as successful over here?
Set in the early 1900s, Oklahoma! tells the story of Laurey Williams - a farm girl who finds herself the object of affection for both cowboy Curly McLain and her farmhand Jud Fry. A host of other characters in the territory provide sub-stories including a secondary romance between Ado Annie and Will Parker.
The staging for this production is like nothing you will have ever seen before (unless you saw it on Broadway, that is). With set design by Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher, they have converted the Young Vic in a huge and unique way. Staged in the round in an intimate setting designed to feel like a community hall, with several rows of audience on each side, it creates a truly immersive feel - though prepare yourself for interactions with the cast. And a warning if you're brave enough to sit in the front row, you may get wet.
Co-directed by Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein, this production is truly unconventional in its approach, with all the elements of Oklahoma! making it clear you are watching something very different, and dare I say special? Most notably is the lighting, designed by Scott Zielinski - the lights don't dim at the start and for much of the show is played out in intense brightness, which may take a while to get used to. There are other times when the theatre is plunged into complete darkness - the first of which creates a moody and deeply unsettling atmosphere. Witout spoiling too much, this darkness moves into a truly inspired use of live video.
The cast for this production are nothing short of sensational. Anoushka Lucas is wonderful as Laurey Williams, giving a subtle performance that manages to charm not just her suitors, but the audience as well. Her undeniable charisma is only matched by her truly stunning vocals. The role of Curly is played by the always reliable Arthur Darvill. He commands the character with the right level of cockiness, not to mention strong vocals that do justice to the iconic songs his character has to sing.
Two performers from the 2019 Broadway production reprise their roles on this side of the pond, with Patrick Vaill bringing a new twist to the character of Jud Fry. Played far less sinister than you would expect, he is played in a far more complicated light with the audience encouraged to feel sympathy for this lonely and perhaps misunderstood soul. Patrick excels at conveying this in an understated and authentic performance. James David returns to the role of Will Parker in a brilliantly comedic performance which simultaneously has the audience falling in love with him and laughing at his errors.
Liza Sadovy may have just won at Olivier award for her role in Cabaret and it's easy to see why she is such a well renowned actress, giving another fantastic performance as Aunt Eller - while her character may not have much to do in comparison to the others, she makes sure she does the most with every opportunity she has. Similarly, Rebekah Hinds has a small but memorable role as Gertie - hilarious every moment she is on stage with a relentless laugh that will haunt me in my nightmares.
Perhaps the standout performance comes from the incredible Marisha Wallace who takes on the role of Ado Annie. Those who have seen Marisha in previous shows will know what a powerhouse performer she is, and this really is no different. When she is involved in a scene, all eyes are always on her as she plays the role with sass, charm and hilarity - highlighted with her note-perfect rendition of 'I Can't Say No'. Her scenes with Stavros Demetraki, playing Ali Hakim, are among the best of the show.
It's fair to see why this version has been dubbed "Sexy Oklahoma" with more thrusting than Magic Mike. Falling just short of placing keys in a bowl such is the level of swinging between pairs, it is a testament to the talent of the cast that they can be paired with any of the 12 strong cast and still display a believable pairing and unrivaled chemistry.
With some truly classic songs under its belt, Oklahoma! delights wheeling these out in new and surprising ways. The title track receives a rocky and urgent new life, while opening number 'Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin' is always glorious - no matter what form it appears in. Arthur Darvil and Anoushka Lucas get a beautiful duet in 'People Will Say We're In Love' while 'The Farmer and The Cowman' provides the most rousing number in the production. With new arrangements from Daniel Kluger, these numbers are brought to life thanks to excellent choreography from John Heginbotham, meaning that every inch of the theatre is bursting with life at all times (not to mention the smell of chilli).
Moments of the show can be fairly strange to witness. The famous dream ballet has been moved so it now opens act 2. While Marie-Astrid Mence gives a fabulous performance, it does feel overlong and perhaps not quite as brilliant as it is trying to be. A choice in the culminating scene of the show which breaks away from the traditional end to the story for me felt anticlimactic with perhaps not enough exposition in the characters to justify the shocking turn of events. While this felt like a bit of a misstep to me, I do have to commend it for the inspired bit of staging during this scene.
The best way to describe this production of Oklahoma! is bold. It would be very easy to rehash the tried and tested measures this show has been performed over the last 80 years so to make it so radically different is a very brave move. It may prove divisive especially to musical theatre purists, but theatre is art and it is fair to call this production a work of art. While there are several flaws to it, this is a one of a kind show that should be celebrated for its innovative and unique style. Perhaps not the best show of the year like some may have expected but it's still pretty beautiful - definitely more than just ok. In fact, it's a triumph!
Oklahoma! is playing at the Young Vic until June 25th. Tickets from youngvic.org
Photos by Marc Brenner