The old songs still soar in this new look at Oklahoma!
If the optimistic, can-do nature of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals grates on you a little, the new Broadway production of Oklahoma!, now the Young Vic, will be right up your Stetson.
Daniel Fish‘s production, co-directed at the London end by Jordan Fein, examines this 20th century classic from a 21st century perspective. It’s even been nicknamed ‘Wokelahoma’ by some wags. Curly is less heroic, Judd less of a villain, the previously admirable strength of the Oklahoma community more sinister.
Let’s start with Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher ‘s design. Most of the audience is on either side of the stage, traverse style. On the back wall is a painting of open plains with sketches of a couple of farm buildings. At the other end is a live band. The unraised stage is bordered by long trestle-style tables; the cast stays on stage most of the time. It feels and is meant to feel like a community hall, all the more so because the entire auditorium is evenly and brightly lit. The last time I experienced this kind of lighting was when I went to see my daughter in a school play. It’s as if we the audience are part of that community and that the community is commenting on their own story. Very Brechtian. But this does mean emotional involvement and dramatic tension are kept at a distance.
The famous opening song Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ is sung initially by Arthur Darvill accompanying himself on guitar before others join in. Straightaway you know that this is going to be a different kind of Curly because, although he’s an attractive guy, he’s nothing like the famous Curlys of the past, tall, well built men like Arthur Drake, Howard Keel and Hugh Jackman. Mr Darvill is small and wiry, and, unlike those rich baritones, he has a beautiful tenor voice, with a nice falsetto.
There was a certain way in which romantic male leads were expected to behave in the mid 20th century when Oklahoma! was written. Even if sensitivity does actually figure in the finest male roles of the period, Hammerstein clearly admired the strong self-assured roll-up-your-sleeves type of hero: the common man who built America. Like Curly. He is even contrasted with weaker male figures like Ali Hakim and Will Parker, played for a great many laughs by Stavros Demetraki and James Davis. Now, we can and usually do choose to take Curly’s character as being of its time, but in this production, looking through 21st century eyes, his charm does lean over into smarm, his cockiness becomes arrogance, his laddishness seems awfully like harassment, and his possessive jealousy spouts toxic masculinity. So he’s not as obviously attractive as one would normally expect.
Then again, nor is Jud the hired help as nasty. Curly’s prospective spouse Laurey is frightened of Jud, which is why she doesn’t reject him and thus he’s encouraged in his pursuit of her. By making him less sinister and more misunderstood, this production undermines the basis of her fear. Patrick Vaill plays Jud with sad-eyed sensitivity showing that he’s awkward with women. There’s a hint of the ‘incel’ about him and, although he’s potentially violent, it does seem that he’s despised by everyone simply because he’s a loner. He’s considered a genuine outsider, not simply someone from outside like Ali Hakim, who’s been accepted into the community. People’s descriptions of this nicely coiffed clean boy as dirty seem to stem from simple prejudice.
When Curly talks with Jud and encourages him to think about suicide, which I guess was always weird, the talk becomes distinctly nasty because it takes place in pitch black. Normally exit signs or some sliver of light enable your eyes to pick up something, but here you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Then in the second act, when Curly is determined to outbid Jud in an auction, the humiliation of the outsider seems less like punishing him for his unpleasantness and more like simple malice.
The lighting isn’t always bright or nonexistent. Sometimes Scott Zielinski’s design bathes the room in orange or green or shines spotlights, as befits the moment.
Rather than the country music you might associate with a southern state like Oklahoma, the band plays bluegrass style: in other words, lots of stringed instruments. And, under Musical Director Tom Brady, what a marvellous sound they make. That most romantic of songs People will say we’re in love is as beautiful as it could be.
Three women dominate this production
Anoushka Lucas plays Laurey as confused, vulnerable and passionate in equal measures. She’s not only a fine actor, she’s another fantastic singer. Lisa Sadovy plays Aunt Eller with a twinkle in her eye, but harder and more cynical than you might expect. And all the better for that. The women definitely hold their own in this production.
The plot is unchanged, at least until the end. Curly makes clear he likes Laurie but plays it down a bit. Laurie feels the same about Curly but won’t admit it. The suppressed sexual desire rises like steam. When you think about it, an awful lot of this musical concerns young people desiring one another. The surrey with a fringe on top is not the familiar jaunty tune that matches the rhythm of a horse and carriage. Instead, it’s slow and sensuous. The line ‘Don’t you wish it could go on forever and you’d never stop’ is delivered with a lascivious smile. It’s clear it’s another kind of ride Curly’s thinking about.
The emphasis on sex continues when we meet Ado Annie and her big number. I cain’t say no. She’s not portrayed as an amusingly silly girl but as a woman confident in her sexuality. Marisha Wallace is not only hilarious., she also has a tremendous voice that blasts the song into the category of showstopper.
Oklahoma! is famous for being one of the first, if not the first, musical to be led by the book, or story. So the songs serve the book, which was written by Oscar Hammerstein II, by revealing character and driving the narrative forward. It may also be the first to fully integrate dance. In fact, Agnes de Mille‘s choreographed dream sequence is one of the iconic moments in the original and her name still appears in the credits, even though her choreography has disappeared.
Now Laurey’s dream is a contemporary dance, choreographed by John Heginbotham. It starts with an electric guitar screaming a stretched out version of Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ that generated the same startled surprise in me as when I first heard Jimi Hendrix playing another classic, The Star Spangled Banner. This is the moment when Laurey is supposed to see clearly that she should choose Curly but it’s less explicit than Agnes de Mille‘s ballet so it confuses more than clarifies.
This production isn’t the only one recently to try to update Rodgers and Hammerstein. Chichester Festival Theatre‘s South Pacific, which is due a London run, dampened down the sexism and bolstered the anti-racism. The Open Air Theatre‘s Carousel faced its domestic violence head on. And I think this is right if we’re to continue to enjoy the positive qualities of their musicals.
However, the ending of this reimagining of Oklahoma! left me disappointed. Not a word has been changed., remember, but the actions have. For me, the reassessment of Curly’s character is pushed too far. I don’t want to give you a spoiler, but I’ll just say that the sham trial now seems like a real miscarriage of justice brought about by a community that sticks together against outsiders. And it makes the ending considerably downbeat.
While I love the new arrangement of the songs, the comedy, the sexiness, and the examination of maleness, I did hope to leave with a smile on my face. It felt like Daniel Fish had tried too hard to shoehorn the actual Oklahoma! into his vision of it.
Oklahoma! is performing at the Young Vic in London until 25 June 2022.