When Marisha Wallace, who plays Ado Annie, sings “I’m just a girl who cain’t say no” we are left in no doubt as to what she means and it gets the ovation it richly deserves. In many ways it epitomises this startling production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at the Young Vic, for which that exclamation mark is deserved many times over. It comes with warnings. We are told the production has ‘mature content’ and ‘contains fog, loud gunshot effects, moments of darkness, and violence’. It should also say that it might leave you an emotional wreck and blown away by the wonder of it all.

stunningly sexy and seductive

Director Daniel Fish’s radical reappraisal of Oklahoma! toured the USA, won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical and ran on Broadway for a highly acclaimed season before its current transfer to London where it has Jordan Fein as associate director. The original dates back to 1943, since then generations of fans have relished its stirring and romantic tunes. They are all still there along with the original script, but the full-scale orchestra with swooning strings has given way to a small band, in costume, that features a banjo, a double bass, a drum kit, a mandolin, a violin, a cello and three types of guitar. Daniel Kluger’s choice of orchestration combined with his arrangements root the music in the sound of the midwest, enhancing the regional setting. Added to this is the minimalist yet vast panoramic prairie scene that fills one wall; all part of the breathtaking transformation of the auditorium by co set designers Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher into a thrust/traverse arrangement. For the most part, this is bathed in brilliant white light, as though the sun is beating down on the plains, but designer Scott Zielinski has colours to sensitively change the mood and times of day and one very big surprise up his sleeve as well. Costumes by Terese Wadden give each character an individual look and the big dance scene provides an opportunity for some fabulous frocks in an array of vibrant colours.

The claustrophobia and tensions of a small community in the vast plains of Oklahoma Territory are palpable. It’s 1902 and statehood is still five years away. Cast members sit each to one of the long trestle tables that border the floor space waiting their turn. In a town this size people see all that goes on, secrets are hard to keep and everybody knows everybody else's business. There are traditional divisions to cope with too. They are made explicit in the box dance big song and dance routine, The Farmer and the Cowman in which they admit that despite their different jobs and demands on the land they ‘should be friends’ because ‘Territory folks should stick together’.

After scanning those around him as though to get a feel of the situation, Arthur Darvill (Curly) almost hesitantly opens up the show, guitar in hand, with Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin, as though he’s wondering whether life can really be this good. The rhythm soon gains pace and the energy flows. Over two hours later his feeling that everything’s going his way proves to be true, but not before a great deal of emotional turmoil. He remains captivating throughout, but that can be said of them all.

His affections are directed towards Laury, whom he assumes will automatically fall for him. Anoushka Lucas imbues her with self-determination, intelligence and power which makes his task less easy. He also has to compete with Jud Fry, her farm hand. Normally played as a rough outsider who seemingly has no chance, the smouldering interpretation given by Patrick Vaill provides far more credibility. If those two are earnestly looking for a partner, Ali Hakim, the travelling pedlar is doing everything he can to avoid matrimonial capture. Stavros Demetraki provides much of the comedy in this role with his impeccable timing and delivery of one-liners. He combines in some some highly amusing scenes with James Davis as the rather dim-witted Will and his bubbly fiancé Ado Annie. Others do equally well in their roles, making this a production that must surely go down in the books as one of the all-time greats.

Oklahoma, the song says, is 'where the wind comes sweeping down the plain' and it's certainly blown the cobwebs out of this classic. Now we can see beneath the surface of cheery exteriors to reveal the often sinister motivations of people with few options in life. Human nature is seen in the raw, as it was then and is now, and that grounds it and brings it into our own age, while at the same time delivering a show that is stunningly sexy and seductive. 

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Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

This is Oklahoma! as you’ve never seen it before, re-orchestrated and reimagined for the 21st century. Winner of the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, Daniel Fish’s bold interpretation transfers to the Young Vic, direct from an acclaimed run on Broadway and a U.S. tour.

Oklahoma! tells a story of a community banding together against an outsider, and the frontier life that shaped America. Seventy-five years after Rodgers and Hammerstein reinvented the American musical, this visionary production is funny and sexy, provocative and probing, without changing a word of the text.

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