REVIEW: Oklahoma! Lyceum Theatre Sheffield ✭✭✭✭✭

Oklahoma Lyceum Theatre Sheffield then touring

Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield
25 July 2015
5 Stars

It was March 31, 1943 when Curly first strode into the light and sang powerfully about what a beautiful morning it was. That long ago date was the moment when musical theatre changed forever. Oklahoma! ran for five years and proved to be the progenitor for pretty much all musical theatre that followed it.

Over 72 years, one influential movie adaptation, and countless productions later, the question is whether or not the Great Grandmother of Musical Theatre still has relevance.

On the strength of Rachel Kavanaugh’s vibrant and intoxicatingly endearing production, now on tour in the UK, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”.

In the programme, Kavanaugh explains her approach:

“You have to come to it as if nobody has done it before. You have to be true to the story, work out what’s being meant on the page and in the score, and tell your version of that story. It is always a joy to work on a show where you’re not having to solve a whole bunch of problems, and when you can concentrate instead on illuminating a great story for a new audience.”

Together with choreographer Drew McOnie and Musical Director Stephen Ridley, Kavanaugh has been true to her word. This revival of Oklahoma! feels freshly minted, alive with possibility, charged with modern energy and spectacularly engaging. At just over two and one half hours, including interval, it is a punchy, pacy version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein original and one that uncovers its glories with fresh insight.

Because it is a piece from a time before feminism, Oklahoma! is not politically correct, but the period setting dilutes the unease. Here, the men are brawny but mostly dumb. Very dumb. The women are pretty, focussed on the menfolk, but bright, as in smart. Aunt Eller is the wisest mind anywhere near the stage. The hope which is tangible throughout the production keeps the uncertainties about sexism at bay.

Kavanaugh presents us with a wily, almost feral Aunt Eller, a metrosexual Curly, a tomboy Laurey, an arch but staunchly feminine Ado Annie, a profoundly stupid but winningly endearing muscleman Will, a troubled and deranged Jud and a pixie-like Carnes. The interloper, the foreigner, Ali Hakim, is hardworking and mercurial, smart and savvy. The characters may be old but the interpretations are sparky and resonant.

Oklahoma Lyceum Theatre Sheffield then touring

At the heart of Kavanaugh’s production is a gloriously winning performance from Ashley Day, whose Curly is virile, purty, nimble on his fleet, quick tongued, open, honest, loyal, brave and, most of all, fun. This is a Curly who thinks with his heart and whose heart is not always wise; a Curly who follows his star, is brave and faithful and true; a Curly who must have had a wicked childhood. There is an overwhelming openness about Day’s performance which is joyous. He smiles and stampedes in equal measure; neither boy nor man; his Curly is on the cusp of manhood, but he needs Laurey to make him whole and worthwhile.

The romantic side of the story is beautifully served by Day, and the scenes where he and Laurey faux fight/tease each other are blissfully done, so that the moment when he proposes is gloriously satisfying. Equally, the scene between Curly and Jud is superbly managed by Day; it is never awful but it is like a duel between two rutting Bulls. Day also brings out, clearly, Curly’s vision for the future – when the territory becomes a Union State. His political vision comes from his sense of community and so doesn’t jar, as often it can. He is also a physical performer, and there is some business with a stove top which is very, very funny.

Vocally, Day is an assured and smooth performer who gives full value to Rodgers’ score. He does not have a Howard Keel voice but, surprisingly, that does not matter. His light tenor voice is strong and sure, and he excels at the ballads as well as the more comical numbers. His character is securely and genuinely established so quickly that whatever expectations one has from earlier recordings is easily swept away. When finally he gets to deliver the title song, it is an absolute triumph.

He attacks McOnie’s routines with considerable gusto, leading the male ensemble in rough and ready footwork that is full of energy and style and steeped in a Barn dance sensibility. The dream ballet sees him fully immersed in the work – there are no shadow doubles here. Day and his Laurey, the gifted Charlotte Wakefield, do all the heavy lifting in the dream sequence themselves and while the result loses some of the balletic brilliance of earlier productions it gains in a true connection with the characters about whom Laurey is dreaming and whose fates are at stake. For my money, it works very impressively.

Oklahoma Lyceum Theatre Sheffield then touring

There is just nothing not to like about Day as Curly. It is an accomplished star turn from every angle.

Wakefield continues to impress. Her Laurey is wilful and more Buffy the Vampire Slayer than Florence Henderson. Her plain, matter-of-fact, get-on-with-it Laurey owes more to Scout Finch than Little House On The Prairie and is all the better for that. Wakefield presents a completely different Laurey – even when she has her purty party dress on, this Laurey does not forget her fiery nature or her convictions. She is very much her Aunt’s niece. Her rapport with Day’s Curly zings with truth and realism and her uneasy place in the gaggle of femininity in the territory rings true.

Blessed with a glorious pure soprano, Wakefield puts it to good use here: her work in “Many A New Day”, “People Will Say We’re In Love” and “Out Of My Dreams” is outstanding, bright and brilliantly melodious. She blends her voice exquisitely with Day and together they are delicious to listen to, all swelling passages of well-supported, legato singing. Her diction, like Day’s, is immaculate and every word is clear. She is terrific in every way.

Belinda Lang, who must have an Oscar in mugging and scene-stealing, is rather like the withered spinster Doris Day’s Calamity Jane would have become but for her marriage. There are the remains of a fine pioneer about her. Acerbic and thin lipped, Lang eschews the fussy-but-warm usual approach to the role and for the most part, and certainly in her key scenes, it works perfectly well. But her singing is average, her diction less than desirable, and there is the occasional lacklustre offhandedness which detracts from the overall performance but this is insufficiently damaging to be calamitous.

Gary Wilmot, on the other hand, delivers a tried and true take on Ali Hakim. There is nothing new or inventive about his approach to the character, but, equally, everything he does works very well. He gets the laughs and poses a suitable threat to Will’s plans for Ado Annie. He sells “It’s A Scandal! It’s An Outrage” very well, and makes you wonder why it is not a better known number, despite being cut from the film.

As the will-they-won’t-they couple, Will Parker and Ado Annie, Lucy May Barker and Simon Anthony are very well matched. They put the ODD into odd-ball couple with emphatic charm. Anthony makes Parker fantastically dim and utterly besotted with Barker’s Annie. For her part, Barker embodies the notion of a gal who cain’t say “No”. Both exude a profound sensuality and both embrace the extreme comedic aspects of their roles. Their “All Or Nuthin'” number is a real treat. Anthony is an energetic dancer and thoroughly relishes McOnie’s choreography, especially in “Kansas City”. Together, they are a comic delicacy, well worth savouring.

Oklahoma Lyceum Theatre Sheffield then touring

In some ways, the hardest role in the piece is that of Jud Fry, the lumbering hulk of Hired Help who festers and broods in his smokeshack. Nic Greenshields pitches his characterisation perfectly, exactly mid-point between Of Mice And Men mental deficiency and Jimmy Savile depravity. He and Day attack “Poor Jud Is Dead” with gusto, to good, albeit uneasy, effect, and Greenshields makes the awkward moment with the murderous peep-at-girls device genuinely scary. Jud’s hideous interest in Laurey and his final deathly encounter with Curly is very well judged. Against the finely etched flaws in Fry’s demeanour and actions, Day’s Curly assumes appropriate heroic status. Greenshields works hard to ensure this is the result.

There is excellent work too from Paul Grunert as Carnes, Kara Lane as Gertie Cummings, Robbie Boyle as Fred and Hannah Grace as Ellen. The ensemble are hard-working triple-threats, all of whom whole-heartedly accept the challenges of the production and meet them. There is no true weak link here.

Francis O’Connor provides a clever and very effective set. While there is no clear sense of the golden haze on the meadow, O’Connor clearly evokes the pioneering spirit. Wood is everywhere, suggesting hard work and tough times. There are hay bales, a glimpse of corn stalks, and a fairly omnipresent sense of the endless blue skies which cover the territory. Aunt Eller’s porch is substantial, as is Fry’s dismal home. The barn which forms the basis for “The Farmer And The Cowman” feels real and welcoming.

Her costumes strive for authenticity rather than colour or style, but they work very well. Perhaps the purty dresses might have been purtier, but the cowboy outfits come with built-in laconic swagger. It all looks and feels just right. Tim Mitchell’s lighting puts everything in an excellent light.

And that is how it sounds too. Excellent. Ridley’s musical direction is first rate, and the band, led by Ben Atkinson, provides excellent support. As is always the case with touring shows these days, there are insufficient strings in the band to give full weight to the lush glories of the score, but, curiously, notwithstanding the absence of strings, in the overall scheme of things the orchestrations here work remarkably well. The balance between band and singer is excellent and the tempi impeccably appropriate.

The choreography from McOnie is vibrant, muscular and enthusiastic; it provides an authentic pulse to the production. Old fashioned in some ways and modern in others, the energy McOnie’s steps bring to the production is positive and uplifting. McOnie’s dance is an integral part of the very fabric of this Oklahoma!, precisely as it should be.

There is nothing not to like here. Kavanaugh’s beautiful and captivating production proves exactly why Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! won a special Pulitzer Prize and became the template/inspiration for all modern musicals. It’s a masterpiece and Kavanaugh has reminded us all exactly why that is so.

Quite why it is not coming to the West End is a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

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