By Neil Durham
WORTH A LOOK?: ****
WHEN?: Saturday 30 April, booking to 25 June 2022 RUNTIME: 170 minutes (including 1 20-minute interval)
We’re sat onstage behind a trestle table on which sits a six-pack of Bud Light and a cooking pot of chilli as male lead Curly McLain, played by Arthur Darvill, arrives playing guitar and singing Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’ and sits opposite us.
- Read on for reasons including how the source material has been tweaked to make the story more unsettling
We’re at the 4th preview of this Broadway transfer of a production which won 2 Tonys in 2019 including Best Musical Revival.
Oklahoma! is best known as a 1955 film which won 2 Oscars and was based on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 1st musical together, itself inspired by Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play Green Grow The Lilacs.
Set in farm country outside the town of Claremore in 1906, it tells the story of farm girl Laurey Williams (Anoushka Lucas, pictured above) and her courtship by two rival suitors, cowboy Curly and farmhand Jud Fry.
Darvill (Sweet Charity, Donmar) uses his guitar suggestively to woo Laurey and the atmosphere is sexually charged as he invites her to the Box Social but she’s far from sure.
Elsewhere her Aunt Eller commentates wryly on the budding yet faltering romance and is played by Liza Sadovy, herself fresh from winning the Olivier Award for best supporting actress (Cabaret, Playhouse Theatre).
They’re not the only couple on the verge of hooking up as dim cowboy Will Parker and his flirtatious fiancée, Ado Annie, spar.
Parker is played by James Davis, who transferred with the production from Broadway, and we particularly enjoyed his song Kansas City not least when he dances across the trestle tables which line both sides of this intimate, immersive space and which we are sitting behind.
What makes this production different from a regular performance of Oklahoma! is that the songs have been re-orchestrated for an 8-strong band which is onstage and predominantly consists of strings and keys meaning the brass sounds that this musical is well known for are absent.
This brings alive the country’n’Western sound of the songs and arguably the highlight is Ado Annie’s I Cain’t Say No rendered by Marisha Wallace (Hairspray, Coliseum) which is not only funny but sung with such energy that the predicament of a woman enjoying herself romantically with multiple men is expressed brilliantly.
Rodgers and Hammerstein (Carousel Regents Park Open Air Theatre) would go on to write The Sound Of Music and win 42 Tonys and 15 Oscars and are the most successful partnership in American musical theatre.
This is 1 of their best known works and re-imagined for the 21st century by directors Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein this is a production that makes the most of some well-known songs particularly the titular track which features memorably at the show’s close.
This production differs to others by depicting Curly’s love rival Jud in a more favourable light making the denouement all the more shocking.
Several difficult scenes are played out almost entirely in the dark with the cast utilising microphones and occasionally a video camera to make them all the more atmospheric. The guns that litter the walls around the venue perfectly illustrate the brutality of the period.
Although we very much enjoyed being so close to the action with the occasional opportunity to interact with the cast this immersion was not quite as pronounced as the recent monsta-winning Cabaret in The Kit Kat Club currently playing at the Playhouse Theatre.
The cast are strong and Darvill’s Curly, complete often with guitar over shoulder, impresses both in the singing and playing. Lucas is strong as a woman divided although we did feel the dream ballet sequence that opened the 2nd act was a little drawn out.
The Bud Lites, trestle tables and band onstage do however single out this vision of a classic musical as something worthy of your attention.
We won’t give away the ending but its played out with a memorable visual gimmick that makes the complicity of all in a shocking act all the more memorable.