When I saw that the Young Vic were showing the new, shaken-up Broadway version of Oklahoma! I knew it was something I had to see. Oklahoma! is one of my favourite musicals but you can never overlook the dark, violent prejudice and savagery that lurks just a little under the surface. The Chichester production from 2019 brought out all the joy of the show whilst exposing a lot of its iffy underbelly. Daniel Fish’s new production goes deeper, and a lot of what it reveals is truly horrific. But it’s also jam-packed with the humour that has always been a mainstay of this musical.
You know the show is going to be disturbing even before it starts. The transformed Young Vic auditorium is ablaze with bright light; the band sit at one end of the stage area, whilst trestle tables laden with cans of beer (that get consumed) and crockpots of chilli (that don’t) line along either side of the acting area and – for the first act – along the middle. The actors sit with their backs to us until it’s their time to join in the show. Unusually for a musical the programme doesn’t list the musical numbers, so unless you know the show intimately you don’t know what’s coming next or whereabouts in the sequence of scenes you are. You might assume from this that the music takes second place in the show’s priorities – but that’s not the case. The music is vital to the show, and frequently adds to the sense of irony and discord that permeates Daniel Fish’s vision for the production. Tom Brady’s band takes Rodgers and Hammerstein’s sumptuous score and give it a modern twist; less Broadway 1943, more country guitar-heavy, but still with stunning singing from the cast who harmonise together exquisitely, with passion and power.
The iconic opening, where Curly sings Oh What a Beautiful Morning off stage whilst Aunt Eller churns butter, now has Curly onstage accompanying himself on his own guitar whilst Aunt Eller silently looks away with the rest of the cast. In fact, gone are the Curly and Laurey of yore, the adorable young couple who win your heart, and whom you want to see living happy ever after at the end. Arthur Darvill’s Curly is vain and arrogant; his swagger barely conceals his scorn for his surroundings, and you get the sense he’s more isolated, not really part of the community; you wouldn’t believe anyone who says he’s their friend. However, this characterisation is juxtaposed with his surprisingly delicate and eloquent singing voice. Anoushka Lucas’ Laurey, on the other hand, is temperamental and sullen; she bats Curly’s approaches away as though he were just another “typical man” for whom she has neither time nor interest – until things start to get physical, at any rate. If and when this Curly and Laurey get together you feel that the sparks will fly in their relationship and not always in a good way.
Where the show is much more traditional is in the representation of the four comedy characters, Ado Annie, Will Parker, Ali Hakim and Gertie Cummings, each one played sublimely. Rebekah Hinds gets Gertie’s irritating cackle perfectly, and suggests a superb smugness whenever she gets her way over anything (or anyone). Stavros Demetraki is hilarious as Hakim, desperately trying to put more money Will’s way so that he can be freed from his commitment to Ado Annie. James Davis, who played Will in this production on Broadway, brilliantly portrays just how utterly stupid the character is, constantly infuriating himself with his own mistakes.
Although she has a lot of stage credits to her name, I’ve never seen Marisha Wallace before, but I was blown away by just how fantastic she is as Ado Annie. Filling the theatre with the most powerful and beautiful of voices, she has immense stage presence and injects everything the character does with just the right amount of comedy, as well as perfect interplay with the audience. Her performance of I Cain’t Say No is the true highlight moment of the show. All the way through, I couldn’t wait for her next appearance because she lights up the stage with such genuine pleasure. Simply marvellous!
I hardly recognised Greg Hicks as Andrew Carnes; if you’ve seen this role played as a lovable old rogue before, think again. Mr Hicks makes him a truly hard man. No sense of humour or kindness; a man who thinks with his gun first then might reflect afterwards (or might not). He’ll aim his barrels at anyone who dallies with his daughter; I thought he was going to blast a few heads off early on and finish the show before the interval. Liza Sadovy’s Aunt Eller is another characterisation that feels more remote and detached from the community, until, at least, she’s in charge of the auction of lunch baskets. There’s excellent support from Raphael Bushay as Mike and Ashley Samuels as Cord Elam; their hesitations at supporting the decision of Judge Andrew towards the end spoke volumes. But the whole cast does a great ensemble job, with terrific singing and dancing – a lot of full-bodied hard-floor thumping to get a resoundingly noisy beat effect.
One of many fascinating directorial decisions in the show – some of which work, and some don’t – is the characterisation of Jud Fry. It’s in the characters’ dealings with Jud that this show gets particularly uncomfortable. Jud is usually portrayed as a loner. Papering his bedroom walls with soft porn to make him seem like a worthless wretch, picking on his learning difficulties, or sometimes on his ethnicity, he’s often seen as the antithesis of Curly, who’s All-American Hero in comparison to Pore Jud. However, Patrick Vaill (who also played the role on Broadway) presents us with a very different Jud. He’s passive, quiet, unemotional; determined but unthreatening, and probably no more of an outsider than Curly is. Rather than being the monster or ogre that he’s normally portrayed, this Jud is just another guy. And that makes Curly’s persecution of him strangely more uncomfortable – other than the fact that Curly’s a bully and wants nothing and no one to stand in his way.
So here’s the first directorial decision that I really didn’t understand. The two scenes where Curly intimidates and interrogates Jud are played in total blackout. All you can follow is by what you hear the two men say to each other. No visual cues, no facial expressions, no physical movement. Apart from the fact that it puts the audience in an uncomfortable, vulnerable position as well, it acts as a barrier to communication; and you can feel the built-up energy of the show quickly sap away as the scene progresses. The fact that you can’t see Curly and Jud’s interactions means that you can’t really understand what goes on between them. And whilst we have seen Curly in action several times during the show, Jud’s presence has only been very minimal, apart from in these two scenes – where you can’t see him! After a while, a camera projects Jud’s image onto the back wall during the song Pore Jud is Daid, but it’s distorted and artificial, and by that time I was so exasperated at being literally kept in the dark that I resented this piece of direction. I felt it was disrespectful to the audience. <rant>Rather like the moment when Ali Hakim unnecessarily and totally out of character sprays beer (actually water but we weren’t sure) over some members of the audience, including Mrs Chrisparkle. She was genuinely concerned it might have ruined her new leather jacket. It would have done if it was beer. The poor man next to her was soaked. Come on, Young Vic, treat us like adults! This isn’t a panto! </rant>.
Odd decision number 2 coming up: it’s always difficult to incorporate the dream ballet sequence in the show. Nowadays it doesn’t fit in with our expectations and comes across as a purely historical interlude that the show would be better off cutting out. However, if you keep it in, it has to be relevant. It’s Laurey’s dream, so it should be performed by Laurey. If it has a meaning, it’s to process her anxieties regarding her forthcoming marriage to Curly. So I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy the dream dance sequence in this production at all. Nothing against Marie-Astrid Mence who throws herself brilliantly into John Heginbotham’s frankly ugly and irrelevant choreography and moves in time with the ghastly distorted musical accompaniment that’s brash, discordant and way too loud. And my word, did it go on….!
There is a third directorial decision that works well – but, good grief, is it horrible! I’m not going to give the game away too much because the shock of the staging is vital to the show’s effect. I knew that Curly was going to shoot Jud near the end – he always does, it’s part of the plot. What I wasn’t expecting was the physical aftermath, both in the actual appearance of the characters and in their change of demeanour. When Curly leads the cast for what is normally the final, triumphant rendition of the title song, so shocked is he at what has happened that he is literally like a zombie. His mouth is singing the words, his hands are strumming the guitar, but the soul inside has gone awol. Laurey joins in with demented fury, eyes on stalks, stamping and shouting like Lady Macbeth on an acid trip.
But this is the message that the show wants to send. The action takes place at the time when Oklahoma was all set to be the next state of the union. You’re doing fine, Oklahoma, goes the uplifting, unforgettable melody, as the state triumphantly sails into the next century. This show points out that the rot has already set in. There’s nothing fine about this Oklahoman society, riddled with injustice and corruption, hatred and contempt. What is normally a sweet ending is rendered bitterly sour. And the production is hugely successful at revealing this ugly truth.
But if you’re a fan of the traditional show like me, even though you appreciate its dark undercurrent and murky prejudices, watching this production left me feeling physically nauseous. My stomach was frappéd like I’d been involved in the Oklahoma Chain Saw Massacre. By far the majority of the audience stood to give it a rapturous ovation, and I completely understand why; but I was rooted to the spot, giving a slowish handclap in disbelief at what I had seen. I’m writing this five days after seeing the show and I can still feel that sense of horror and destruction that this production has created in me. I can only say that you must see this show for yourself to truly appreciate what it reveals. It’s on until 25th June, but this is too much of a landmark production for it to stop there. I only wonder if there will ever be space for a traditional Oklahoma! again.
Production photos by Marc Brenner