Let’s get the obvious part out of the way: this version of Oklahoma! doesn’t want you to leave with a goofy smile on your face. A Broadway transfer, Daniel Fish’s reimagining of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic quickly forgoes the knee-slapping, square-dancing bonhomie associated with the early 1900s-set musical. Instead, it dives headfirst into the suffocating bleakness of small-town community life and the male-female relationships that govern them. Fun! Plot-wise, Oklahoma! revolves around the lop-sided love triangle between aloof farm girl Laurey (Anoushka Lucas), cocksure cowboy Curly (Arthur Darvill) and Jud Fry, the vilified hired help on the estate (hauntingly played by Patrick Vaill, who originated the role in the US).
Things start nicely enough: Curly strides onto the stage, guitar in hand, and begins with the comforting and familiar tune of “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’”. Strangely, the bright house lights stay on during much of the production, meaning that as well as watching the action on stage, you can also see how other audience members react to the show (are we all performers in society, too?). Curly flirts with Laurey, she rebuffs him, and he pledges that he’ll win her love, sooner or later. It’s light and charming, but the musical really kicks into high gear with Marisha Wallace’s rendition of “I Cain’t Say No”. As Ado Annie, she’s an amorous farmer’s daughter who just can’t resist the sweet words and hot kisses of any “feller” who’ll offer them. Her wide-eyed, lustful gaze, combined with roof-raising vocals, easily, and deservedly, secure her the most raucous cheers from the opening-night audience.
For all the joy brought by Ado Annie’s interactions with her suitors, the atmosphere can turn cold in an instant, unsettling the nerves and making you wish for a speedy return to the levity. The number “Pore Jud is Daid” plunges the audience into total darkness as Curly taunts social outcast Jud with the idea that he might finally receive love and recognition from his community if he hung himself from one of the barn rafters. A projection onto the theatre’s back wall gradually reveals the actors sitting with their faces merely breaths apart as one tries to convince the other to kill himself. Scary! Erotic! A solo dance sequence by Marie-Astrid Mence opens the second act, in which she runs and twists through stage mist, representing Laurey in a dream state. Beautiful! But as much as innovations like these breathe new life into an almost 80-year-old play, several choices throughout its run feel so disjointed that it’s hard to see their reason for being, apart from purely unsettling the audience.
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