Review of ‘Oklahoma!’: “Change in all things is bittersweet”

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s revolutionary masterpiece comes back to the West End in an unconventional production following its first Broadway and Young Vic runs. Guillermo Nazara reviews this original take on the ageless classic, to let us know what’s new in one of the most popular and performed shows of all time.

Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends. Never before have such charming lyrics sounded more twisted and ironic. Seventy years after its Broadway baptism, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first and top 5-rated collaboration still seems to be inspiring directors with new visions and approaches far beyond the old-fashioned enchantment that characterized the writing duo’s defining style. Both an audience and creatives fave when it comes to revivals, the attempts of either modernizing its Golden-Era vibe through more mature, heavier eyes (often feeding from the piece’s latent mature undertone) has been a subject of interest to several renowned artists over the show’s long-running lifespan.

This season, London and Oklahoma! are having a double reunion – the musical coming to the West End in a new though already seen revival, previously put in the city at the Young Vic during their 2022 programming. Directed by Daniel Fish, this updated makeover erases the pompous glamour of traditional Broadway with a more visceral, down-to-earth vision. Going through a thorough transformation on its entire delivery, the work’s whole staging moves from family-friendly extravaganza to dark adult drama – carried out through a full revision of the songs’ arrangements, experimental blocking and minimalistic setting.

Relying on new orchestrations and more latter-day renditions of its iconic repertoire, the musical revision succeeds at providing the show with a more urban, contemporary sound, transitioning from the opulence of a typical theatrical score to edgier country-rock fringe genre – probably the most appealing trait of its whole reformation. The push of boundaries comes, however, in the shape of its visuals, using different techniques to either change, add or reinterpret the feel of every scene. Starting with a table-read look for its opening numbers, the direction is, on this occasion, founded on triggering the public’s senses – sometimes focusing on mere sound while others reinforcing the action with more avant-garde approaches.

Highly questionable as for if such extreme turn is right or, more importantly, efficient, there is no doubt nonetheless that the choice of casting is, with almost no exception, an utter triumph. Excelling at both their acting and singing capabilities, it wouldn’t be far-gone to say that, for this rarest of occasions (as this production is too), there might be the first time in a long while that a whole troupe is worthy of a mention. But since I get no bonuses for the amount of words I type, I shall keep it simple (yes, I know that you’re relieved now too…). Of the entire company, Arthur Davill (in the lead role of Curly McLain) gives a strong, magnetic portrayal, while James Patrick Davies (as Will Patrick) steals almost every laugh with his magnificent comedy bone. Finally, Patrick Vail provides an quiet but uneasy rendition of the unstable Jude Fry, endowing his character with a deeper sympathetic touch that brings out the complexity of his emotions.

I don’t know what to make of you! You’re too purty to be a skunk! Too thin to be a snake! To little to be a man, and too big to be a mouse! Maybe not through those same words, but surely a similar thing has happened to me while watching this production: an outstanding cast but a not so reassuring (sometimes uncanny) staging; a loveable reinterpretation of its musical themes, but a less enticing revision of its topics. It’s obvious that it’s not for everybody – as to be fair, quite a few have raved about it in what appears to be a show that rises opposition, that perhaps being its main and sole purpose. But that’s a goal that can easily become a wart, as taking its mainstream coating off could also mean estranging it from its true essence.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

All pictures credit to Marc Bremmer.

Oklahoma! plays at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre from Monday to Saturday. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Nazara

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