sat 02/03/2024

Oklahoma!, Wyndham's Theatre review - radical reimagining adds plenty but achieves less | reviews, news & interviews

Oklahoma!, Wyndham's Theatre review - radical reimagining adds plenty but achieves less

Oklahoma!, Wyndham's Theatre review - radical reimagining adds plenty but achieves less

Ambitious but misconceived take on musical theatre landmark outstays its welcome

Is that a guitar in your hand or .... Anoushka Lucas and Arthur Darvill in 'Oklahoma!'Images - Marc Brenner

It is, perhaps, important to note that this production was first staged in London at the Young Vic, a venue noted for shows possessed of a rather harder edge than that usually connoted by the description "West End musical".

On leaving the theatre after an unnecessarily gruelling evening in just about the most uncomfortable seat in which I’ve ever sat (and competition is very fierce in that category), I heard an old boy who had not clocked that provenance remark, “It was very… modern.” Quite.

And why not? The old warhorse has seen 80 years of beautiful mornings, sitting in the canon of musical theatre for longer than most of us have been alive, so it’s ripe for a rethink. There are legitimate answers to the question “Why Oklahoma! now?”, but a more interesting one is “Why the traditional version of Oklahoma! now?” – the ambition underpinning that challenge is laudable.

That’s what the director, Daniel Fish, took on well over a decade ago, picking up the book and score, giving them a good shake and finding the anguish that is never too distant in the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein. He has the awards in New York and London to prove that his audacious approach was successful, but, beyond that metatheatrical triumph, is the production actually a good one? Oklahoma!We open bathed in the eye-scrunching light that one really only gets under the big American skies of the South. Rifles, 120 of them, line the walls of a barn, reminding us that this land was won, and defended, at the end of a muzzle. One can almost smell the cordite lingering in the air, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. And we’re not wrong: the strange American addiction to guns lurks in the shadows throughout.

Daniel Kluger’s band employ banjos, accordions and other instruments that might have the composer’s eyebrows lifting to give a recognisable country vibe to familiar songs, setting them off-balance, lending to the score a menace that recalls Ry Cooder’s unforgettable work for the movie Southern Comfort. Allied to the 21st century costumes by Terese Wadden, we’re not sure where we are, but almost certainly not in Kansas City, Toto.    

A little disorientation is fine, even welcome in a genre that is often a little too keen on exposition, but the story is soon lost in Fish’s desire to point our attention elsewhere. Gone is the optimism of the homesteaders fulfilling Manifest Destiny, so the titular song feels tacked on as a closing number. Gone, too, is any sense of the need to create a community that can reach the critical mass required to sustain the brand new state that is their aspiration. The box social scene, in which men bid for picnics prepared by eligible womenfolk (a kind of debutantes' ball in gingham frocks), is staged more like the infamous sex workers’ auction in the 1972 film Prime Cut – the subtext not enhanced by its raising to the surface. 

The staging is too often grimly obvious or ostentatiously showy. The dark psychological manoeuvrings of the cowboy, Curly McLain, and dark thoughts of his rival for the hand of Laurey, the loner Jud Fry, are presented in pitch darkness, the first of two blackouts that prove at least one too many. The handheld camera close-up - which drives home just how much Patrick Vaill (pictured above) as Jud resembles Kurt Cobain, who sang songs of alienation, geddit? - is surely a theatrical cliche these days, especially in moody monochrome. Boots, inexplicably, fall from the barn roof in one scene and you really need to have prior knowledge of what the second half opener’s dream ballet is really about (Laurey’s dilemma in choosing a lover) to warrant its lengthy digression. The ballet also answers the question nobody was asking – what would Brian May sound like with an amp that goes to 11 playing 1940s show tunes?

The singing and acting are variable. Anoushka Lucas has the presence and voice to lead the show as the object of male desire, Laurey, and Georgina Onuorah finds the funny and flirtatious in Ado Annie. With the focus turned as much on Jud’s mental frailty as on the romantic machinations, Vaill delivers a superb “Lonely Room”, neuroses curdling into psychoses, and is never less than compelling. In supporting roles, James Patrick Davis is very good as the dimwitted but decent Will Parker and Stavros Demetraki is wryly amusing as the commitment-phobic peddler, Ali Hakim.

Darvill, as the cowboy Curly, largely holds his emotions for Laurey too close to the chest and, hence, away from the audience, coming alive mostly in his alpha male bullying of Jud in the dark. As Aunt Eller, 2022 Olivier winner Liza Sadovy (Cabaret) isn't so much wise and sardonic as critical and impatient, and her absence of warmth isn't helped by one's sense that she is uncomfortably stretched by the score. 

The buzz around the transfer to Wyndham’s Theatre set expectations high, but it’s a show in which the only brightness is that glare shining into our eyes – even the closing, rousing "Oklahoma!" is interpreted as a song of defiance, all stamping feet and scowling. The digressions, tricksy effects and focus on weighty hot-button issues make the production feel longer than it is. And, when it’s already slated at two hours 50 minutes, that’s not a good sign.    

 

Comments

I haven't seen the show, either at the Young Vic or Wyndhams, so this is just conjecture - but I wonder if the transfer venue was a mistake, and contributes to the sense of alienation that Gary seems to express in his review. I can think of many shows that seemed to suffer in the wrong venue; to pick out just one from some time ago: Sugar Babies starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, which I first saw at the Pantages in LA and loved. But when it was re-produced at the Savoy in London soon after, with the same leads, it just fell flat. Instead, if it had been staged at the Palladium or Victoria Palace, I think it would have worked. The mood is always first set on entering a theatre (in the case of the Savoy, a mood of elegance and sophistication), but if the vibe of the building conflicts with the vibe of the show (vaudeville in the case of Sugar Babies), I think that's a big problem ..

That is a useful observation. People who have seen the show at both venues (I haven't) remark on the differences in how the production is received.

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