Theatre Review: Oklahoma! at the Bristol Hippodrome
This review was first written for The Public Reviews
Oklahoma! two-steps into the Bristol Hippodrome with its much-loved Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook, infectiously energetic dances and a sunnyside-up storyline more complex than the opening boy-meets-girl scenario might suggest.
Director Rachel Kavanaugh and her choreographer Drew McOnie’s new version of this 1943 musical doesn’t so much attempt to update a classic, as transport its audience back into the heart of its turn of the 20thCentury setting, a time when Oklahoma was about to be created as the 46th state of the Union.
So, this is a story filled with the optimism and flirtations of new beginnings, as young cowboy Curly McLain invites farm girl Laurey Williams to the box social dance that evening. But it also touches on deeper obsessions and social divisions, as Laurey decides to play hard to get and go with Aunt Eller’s hired hand Jud Fry instead. Jud has a darker, brooding side and, once she realises she’ll be left alone with him, Laurey begins to regret her decision.
Ashley Day is engagingly winsome as Curly, fluid in the dances and with a clear, bright singing tone in the opening Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’. Charlotte Wakefield is more than his match as Laurey – full of vitality and looking for more from life than just marriage to the closest man, combining harmoniously with Curly in People Will Say We’re in Love. And Nic Greenshields gives magnificent voice to the misery of what it is to be Jud; as Curly goes as far as suggesting in PoreJud is Daid that he might be better off committing suicide. It’s difficult not to feel some 21st century liberal sympathy for this unremitting villain of the piece, no matter how brutish his acts.
The entertaining sub-plot involves Lucy May Baker as Ado Annie, the girl who “Cain’t Say No” with assured performances from Simon Anthony as her young beau Will and Gary Wilmot as Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler who quickly regrets his involvement. Wilmot masters his role effortlessly as the lovable rogue and his cheeky asides are timed to perfection.
Francis O’Connor’s multi-layered set is a delight, providing real depth to the stage with its timbered backdrop and the bare framework of the school building, which proves a great springboard for the dances of the box social in Act Two, when the pace of this production really picks up. Lighting design by Tim Mitchell also brings outstanding clarity and warmth, although on press night at least, there are initially a few sound issues, with some words and meanings indistinct.
It’s all too easy to view Oklahoma! with its host of familiar songs and out-dated gender roles as a captivating but rather quaint period piece, yet it’s so much more than that. When first staged, it was ground-breaking in musical history for integrating song and dance into the story and using them imaginatively – particularly in the Dream Ballet – to propel the narrative forward. The Rodgers and Hammerstein score still stands the test of time and this touring production more than does it justice.