When it comes to writing the annals of the development of Musical Theatre, few productions are more significant than Oklahoma! Based on Lynn Riggs’ play Green Grow the Lilacs, this was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first partnership. It wasn’t foreseen that R & H would be a dream team together, even though they’d had considerable successes in previous partnerships (Rodgers and Hart, Hammerstein and Kern). Given that the source play had been a flop on Broadway, chalking up only 64 performances, and that Oscar Hammerstein had had a string of disasters throughout the 30s, commercial backing was hard to come by. Few people thought a folksy musical set in historical Indian Territory would be The Next Big Thing. But those few people who did, laughed all the way to the bank as the original Broadway production of Oklahoma! ran for 2,212 performances (at the time a Broadway record) from 1943 to 1948, and the West End production didn’t do badly either, opening in 1947 and running for 1,543 performances. In London, Curly was played by a young Howard Keel – so young, in fact, that at that stage he hadn’t yet changed his name from Harold Keel. And there was the film version too, directed by Fred Zinnemann in 1955 – I expect that made a few bob.
But it’s not only as a commercial success that it’s significant. Stylistically it was way ahead of its time. Usually musical shows would open with a big ensemble number to get the mood swinging – after all, the musical is the perfect vehicle for upbeat, uptempo, comic, all-singing and all-dancing theatre. The original production of Oklahoma! (like Oliver! you must never forget the exclamation mark) started with an old woman churning butter and a young cowboy singing Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ offstage, on his own, with no accompaniment. From glitzy and glamorous to minimalist in one fell swoop, you couldn’t get a more reserved, introverted start. In this new production directed by Rachel Kavanaugh, Curly does actually come on stage before he starts singing, and Aunt Eller is washing shirts rather than churning butter, but I guess that’s progress.
Then there is the subject matter. Forget your Irving Berlin and Cole Porter fripperies of the 1920s and 30s, here we have a tale of survival, of ruthlessness, of potential violence. In its exploration of adolescent love there’s an element of Spring Awakening; in the character of Jud Fry you have a brutal sex pest, the cause of which may be due to his mental deficiencies; with his murder at the hands of Curly, you have the heroic young male lead killing off his rival in love. There were certainly elements of the story with which Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t comfortable. There’s a scene where Curly shows Jud how easy it would be to hang himself, using a rope tied round a conveniently protruding beam end. The song Pore Jud is Daid is a fantasy about how, after he has died, everyone realises what a great bloke he was (he wasn’t) and how much they will miss him and weep for him (they won’t). Where else would it be acceptable to laugh at a scene where a young man tries to convince his mentally challenged rival to top himself? It’s definitely the stuff of Orton or Bond – hardly what you would expect from a jolly Rodgers and Hammerstein musical from the 1940s. But that is the power of the musical – it can explore such difficult material whilst retaining the veneer of light entertainment.
So it’s great to welcome this new production of Oklahoma! to the Royal and Derngate before it embarks on its national tour. The performance we saw last night was its first preview before opening on Monday and you could almost taste the excitement from the stage as the cast gave it all they had and seemed to have a great time in the process. Francis O’Connor’s set slowly opens out in the first few moments as the back flies up to reveal a hint of the bright golden haze on the medder; Aunt Eller’s front porch looks poor but hospitable; the ever revolving windmill sail keeps on turning and it’s easy to imagine yourself taken back to the Indian Territory of 1906 before it is assimilated as the 46th state of the USA as Oklahoma. Stephen Ridley’s ten-piece band plays the amazing score like a dream (there isn’t a duff song in the show, although occasionally some of them end a little more suddenly than you expect), and the volume amplification is set to just perfect (something that’s so easy to get wrong nowadays).
The choreography is by Drew McOnie, who basically seems to have choreographed every show we’ve seen recently, and is a joy to watch. You can see that a lot of it is inspired by the action of getting on or off your horse, with a sense of cowboy machismo running through it like a stick of rock. Typical of these early-mid twentieth century musicals you’ve also got a dream ballet sequence to contend with. As an audience member, if you’re not attuned to the choreographer’s style than these can be anywhere on a scale from dull to excruciating. But Mr McOnie has created an exciting, dynamic piece of modern dance, including aspects from other numbers and routines elsewhere in the show, and really bringing to life the tangibility of Laurey’s dream, with its sensual delights and terrifying horrors in equal measure. No dull dream ballet this, but a riveting dance drama, fantastically performed. Oh, and there’s dancing with bales of hay. Where else would you find that?
The show is blessed with a talented and likeable cast who give some tremendous performances. At its heart is the on-off love interest between Curly and Laurey and you really need to believe the relationship between these two for the show to work – and they express that relationship magnificently. Early in the show Charlotte Wakefield’s Laurey is to be found moping on Aunt Eller’s porch, sending off hostile vibes to Curly; but she has a glint in her eye from the start and really captures that sense of a young girl being swept away by her emotions. She is a brilliant singer, and brought a massive amount of warmth and affection to the role. She was perfectly matched by Ashley Day as Curly (who we last saw as one of those nice Ugandan missionaries in The Book of Mormon) at first feigning cocky confidence over his wanting to take Laurey to the box social that night, but soon unable to conceal his true feelings for her. I can imagine there’s a considerable sense of responsibility in delivering the iconic Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ by yourself, right at the beginning of the show, but Mr Day carried it off with ease. Vocally the two blend stunningly. I really enjoyed the whole Surrey with the Fringe on Top routine, and they did more than justice to People Will Say We’re In Love, a song I learned in my infancy, it being one of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourites. These are two young actors to watch – they’re definitely on course for a great career in musical theatre.
There are also a couple of actors who are already at the peak of their fantastic careers, and these performances will do no harm to their CVs either. Aunt Eller is played by Belinda Lang with amazing conviction. She’s on stage a lot of the time, even if she’s just washing shirts or observing conversations. We both loved how she expressed the kindliness of the role with very little sentimentality. It was a harsh world in those days, and you can see it in Miss Lang’s eyes. She also turns on the comedy with a great deftness, particularly in the Act Two opener, The Farmer and the Cowman, wielding a rifle that’s almost bigger than she is. And of course there is everyone’s favourite song and dance man, Gary Wilmot, as the Persian peddler Ali Hakim, with a comic performance that’s part pantomime, part music hall, whilst never going over the top or losing sight of the genuine concerns of his character. We’ve seen Mr Wilmot a few times recently – in the Menier’s Invisible Man, the Birmingham Hippodrome’s Snow White and in Radio Times at the Royal, and if ever there was a born entertainer, it’s him.
The ensemble boys and girls all sing and dance with great verve and enthusiasm and brighten up the stage whenever they are on. But there are also some great performances from other members of the cast. I was very pleased to see that one of my favourite performers was in this show, James O’Connell as Will Parker, the not-overly intelligent suitor to Miss Ado Annie Carnes, who has been told to save $50 before her father will agree to their marriage; and who every time he amasses $50, he spends it. We saw Mr O’Connell in Chichester’s Barnum a couple of years ago and he’s a great combination of character actor and dancer. What I particularly admire about him is how nifty he can be on his feet without being one of the more svelte members of the cast. I’m sure he’s also going to have a great career. Lucy May Barker was Ado Annie, and gave us a brilliantly funny I Cain’t Say No. It’s a great fun role, being hopelessly attracted to every man she meets, and Miss Barker does it with great aplomb. There was also excellent support from Kara Lane as the horrendous Gertie Cummings, laughing hideously as she gets more and more attached to the unfortunate Ali, and Paul Grunert as Ado Annie’s inflexibly stern and protective father Andrew – who also allows Curly to get off scot-free at the end.
And that nicely brings us to Nic Greenshields as Jud, which has to be one of the most serious roles in all musical comedy – and maybe thankless too, as the audience doesn’t like the character even though you’re not a typical stage villain. Mr Greenshields has a fantastically imposing stage presence, and he creates the most expressive and moving performances of the songs Pore Jud is Daid and Lonely Room. There is a fine line to be trod with the character of Jud – part thug, part bumpkin; the kind of guy who will line the walls of his living room with the equivalent of Page 3 Girls, and fantasise about gadgets that will kill a man without his having a clue he’s in danger; but who on the other hand is simply desperately lonely and in need of some female company. Mr Greenshields treads that line perfectly – I thought it was a tremendous performance.
Oklahoma! is scheduled for a national tour from now until the middle of August. Whilst it may be a little old fashioned for some people’s taste, nevertheless when you have a score as rich and entertaining as this, as well as an excellent cast, great singing and dancing and plenty to think about on the way home, I unhesitatingly recommend it as a terrific revival of one of the most significant shows in American musical theatre. Oklahoma, OK!
Publicity photos by Pamela Raith