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3rd June 2023

Review: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!

Daniel Fish’s radical reimagining of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is ambitious, intelligent, and (intentionally) unenjoyable
Review: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Anoushka Lucas and Arthur Darvill. Photo: Marc Brenner

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! has been entertaining audiences since 1943. A euphoric antidote to the misery and horror of the Second World War, it’s your typical, feel-good, old-school Broadway musical (or, rather, it was).

It’s becoming the norm for classic musicals to not only be revived but, rather, reimagined. This is often because old musicals are often outdated and offensive – take the racism and sexism of The King and I and the sexism and classism of My Fair Lady. Bartlett Sher and his creative team carefully deorientalised the former, both aesthetically and tonally, whilst giving the title character of the latter agency and autonomy – complete with a changed ending.

Other times, as is the case with Oklahoma!, old musicals are reimagined because they are dated and overdone. Creatives want to breathe new life into these classic materials and offer something new. Take Jamie Lloyd’s upcoming reimagining of Sunset Boulevard (but whilst that musical is in need of a reimagining, I’m not yet convinced Jamie “minimalism” Lloyd is the man to do it).

This reimagining of Oklahoma! began its life in New York; it had a workshop, a New York run, and a Broadway run, before transferring to the Young Vic in London’s off-West End (where a conventional Oklahoma! would have been entirely out of place) and now, eventually, running on the West End.

Daniel Fish’s deconstruction of Oklahoma! does not change a single lyric or line of dialogue but, through direction and design, it casts the musical in a very different light (quite literally – more on lighting later). Overall, critics have seen great merit in Fish’s interpretation, but audiences are pretty divided; it’s a production that will alienate as many people as it enthralls.

Fish focuses on the darker aspects of the musical and brings them to the forefront. Having never seen Oklahoma! previously, I am surprised that some of these scenes were ever not dark; that they were tackled with humour and a lack of seriousness. Thus, Fish must be congratulated for his reimagining; it feels entirely natural.

The musical opens with the entire cast sat around a table onstage as they perform the opening number. The majority of the cast sit in silence for the duration of this scene – and it feels like forever. Whilst the actors move very little, they are all masterfully characterised, facially. We are introduced to the characters at different moments; many of the cast sit there for ages without ever saying anything or saying very little. It’s an uncomfortable, chilling opening, especially because the house lights are kept on. With the actors gathered around a table and staring out into the audience, we always would have felt like voyeurs, but keeping the house lights on means that the actors can see us; they are watching us watch them.

The house lights remain on for the duration of the musical. They are switched off a few times when a section of a number becomes quite intimate and the stage is lit with coloured light. There are also two extended blackouts, one in each act, where the entire theatre goes dark; not even the safety escape signs can be seen.

The first scene performed in darkness is ‘Pore Jud Is Daid’, where Curly (Doctor Who‘s Arthur Darvill) tries to convince Jud (Patrick Vail – one of two holdovers from the original NY cast) to commit suicide. Eventually, some lights are turned on so that we can see the actors onstage, albeit not very well. Instead, a camera is held up at them so that we can see their faces in night vision projected onto the back wall. Apparently, this number is usually quite comedic but surely now people can appreciate just how dark, twisted and chilling the content of that number is.

There’s a strong hint of homoeroticism in this scene and in a few others. I could get into that, and some of the many other themes and issues Fish tackles, but this article would turn into an essay…

Whilst the script has not been altered, every other aspect of this musical has been transformed, right down to the score, which has been given a country and western and bluegrass makeover.

One of the most notable and radical changes is that of the iconic ‘Dream Ballet’, wherein heroine Laurey (a delightful Anoushka Lucas) addresses the romantic entanglements in her life – the love triangle between she, Curly and Jud. Whilst the first act traditionally ends with the dance, Fish has decided to use it as the opening of the second act.

The entire cast come onstage before the stage is filled with smoke or dry ice, so much of it that it covers the first few rows of the stalls and rises up to and approaches the circle. It is very impressive but I do wonder if the creatives might have gone the full way and filled the entire space between the stage and the front of the circle with smoke – though, admittedly, I’m unsure of the practicality and safety of that.

When the smoke lifts, we see a dancer onstage (we had the amazing alternate, Anna Maria De Freitas). The ‘Dream Ballet’ has been transformed into a solo dance, with the stage partially cloaked in darkness and live-filmed images projected onto the back of the stage. It’s no longer a dream but a nightmare, complete with a dark distortion of Rodgers’ melodious music. At one point, an assortment of cowboy boots drop from the flies, perhaps signifying the oppression of women. Later, the entire cast join the scene, complete in camp-tastic costumes. Eventually, Laurie awakens, quickly putting the dream behind her, as if it never happened.

Some are sure to be disappointed by this complete reinvention of the iconic number but surely all can appreciate its ambition and artistry, even if it might feel a little esoteric at times.

As is traditional in classic Broadway musicals, there’s a main love story and a secondary one. Whilst the primary “love” story is the love triangle between Laurey, Curly and Jud, the second involves the hilarious Ado Annie (the perfectly cast Paige Peddy, who has just stepped into the role), the daughter of the local judge, and Ali Hakim, a Persian pedler (played by the spectacular Stavros Demetraki – though, for representation’s sake, I do wonder if an actual Persian might have been cast). This relationship brings the humour in an otherwise bleak production but, even here, there’s some pretty dark issues, such as forced marriage: Ado Annie’s father, Andrew Carnes (Olivier nominee Greg Hicks), threatens Hakim into marriage with Annie, and upon freedom, Gertie’s father does the same.

Olivier nominee Rebekah Hinds is brilliant as the criminally underwritten Gertie Cummings, a woman quite comfortable in her sexuality. Meanwhile, WhatsOnStage Award winner Sally Ann Triplett (who has also just joined the show) excels as the morally dubious Aunt Eller, who is determined that her niece, Laurey, ends up with Curly, not Jud – and, sure enough, Curly wins the girl.

Oklahoma! traditionally ends with a drunken Jud reappearing at Curly and Laurey’s wedding. He kisses Laurey and punches Curly, and they begin a fistfight. Jud attacks Curly with a knife, and Curly dodges, causing Jud to fall on his own knife and dying. The wedding guests hold a makeshift trial for Curly, at Aunt Eller’s urging. The judge, Andrew Carnes, declares the verdict: “not guilty!” Curly and Laurey depart on their honeymoon in the surrey with the fringe on top. It’s all very celebratory.

In this adaptation, however, Jud arrives in silence and hands Curly a gun. Jud is happy to follow Curly’s earlier advice but if Curly wants him dead, he will have to do it himself. Jud stands at the front of the stage with his back to the audience. Laurey approaches Jud before standing beside, ever so slightly behind, Curly, who fires a shot at Jud. Curly and Laurey, both dressed entirely in white, are covered in blood, their faces soaked. Darvill’s face was entirely red, as if it had been painted. It’s very impressive.

The wedding guests – the community – decide to cover up the murder. The celebratory title song is tonally transformed, with the characters completely aware of the lies that they are telling – both others and themselves. “The land we belong to is grand,” they sing, their faces expressing trauma, their bodies expressing desperation; it’s all quite awkward and very, very dark. I looked around at the people around me to see if they were as horrified as I was.

This Oklahoma! is an intelligent interrogation of the “American Dream”, the notion that America is the “Land of the Free”, the romanticisation of the “good old days”, and the idea that community is a force for good – or, maybe so, but good for whom? Certainly not for Jud, a misunderstood farmhand who is marginalised by everybody whilst the “hero”, Curly, is charming, yes, but only to manipulate.

I wish I had seen Oklahoma! previously so I could properly appreciate Fish’s daring deconstruction. It is, undeniably, an ambitious, intelligent and awe-inspiring adaptation. But I did not enjoy it. Frankly, I’m unsure how anybody could possibly enjoy this harrowing piece of theatre. But that’s not a criticism, for Fish has intentionally drained this musical of all its joy to tackle the horrors that lie beneath.

Fish’s Oklahoma! is no doubt a marmite show but it’s certainly memorable. Love it or hate it, you won’t forget it – even if you wish you could.


Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is currently running at the Wyndham’s Theatre until September 2.

Jay Darcy

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. Email: [email protected].

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