Words: Simon Button; pictures: Marc Brenner
So-called “radical reinventions” of classic musicals don’t always sit well with me. I found Jamie Lloyd’s new Evita at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre to be an infuriating hot mess (Eva Peron singing ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ in her undies? Why exactly?) and the downbeat redo of Carousel at the same venue sapped all the fun out of the Rogers and Hammerstein show.
But having been around the block in a surrey with the fringe on top countless times since it opened on Broadway as the first Rogers and Hammerstein collaboration, Oklahoma! is one musical that could do with a refurb and Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein’s revival of it is a less meddlesome affair, at least for its first act.
Bringing the production that played in New York in 2019 to London’s Young Vic, the directors have turned what is usually a huge spectacle into an intimate production - with the stage in the centre of the auditorium - that largely retains the heart, soul, comedy, and sorrow of the original conception whilst investigating its violent underbelly.
Arthur Darvill is a sexy, guitar-strumming Curly McLain, channelling Keith Urban as he seeks to woo strong-willed Laurey Williams (the lovely-voiced Anoushka Lucas) in the Southern state in the early 1900s, opening the show with a folksy ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ that tells us this is a more real, rawer Oklahoma! than we’ve seen before.
Every single performance is a joy. Liza Sadovy (so good in Cabaret recently) is a straight-talking Aunt Eller, James Davis is suitably exasperated as Will Parker, as the girl who can’t say no - to him or anybody else - Marisha Wallace gives Ado Annie her all, and Patrick Vaill lends the usually creepy character of Jud Fry a sympathetic twist.
It’s a shame there isn’t more dancing in the upbeat first act, with ‘Kansas City’ promising to turn into a group two-step before fizzling out.
But the cast-iron script can withstand Fish’s bold artistic choices, such as having much of the action play out with the house lights on full, and the stripped-down orchestrations actually enhance Rogers & Hammerstein’s beautifully melodic score.
The tonal shifts don’t always work, however. There are a couple of total blackouts that, while sinister and unnerving, muddle the narrative.
The less enjoyable second act starts with a dream ballet that’s meant to be terrifying but is actually terrible. And the ending, which is bloody and disturbing, makes the encore of the rousing ‘Oklahoma!’ feel uncomfortable, to put it mildly.
Even Ado Annie gets a gun and there are rifles hanging everywhere as a reminder of how America’s West was really won. I can’t help wishing, though, that what starts out as a beautiful mornin’ didn’t turn into such a dark day.
Oklahoma! is at the Young Vic until 25 June. For more information visit youngvic.org and for great deals on tickets and shows click here.