Skip to content


by on 28 February 2023

Darkness Brought to Light


by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

The Bard Summerscape at Wyndham’s Theatre until 2nd September

Review by Mark Aspen

All the best known and brightest numbers from Oklahoma! come right at the beginning.   But, in Daniel Fish’s fresh new take on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first musical, they are not as their devotees would know these numbers.  Here is a version of Oklahoma!  that examines the darker sides of this much-loved musical.

Bright and dark are quite an appropriate adjectives, as the inventive lighting design features as much as does the energetic music, brilliant singing, and incisive acting.

Transporting us to the mid-West America, the Wyndham’s picture-frame proscenium and Louis XVI pastel architecture vanishes behind wooden shuttering sporting quite an armoury.  Two dozen rifle racks, each for six sharpshooters, gives a gross of guns.  It will soon be 1907, Oklahoma may be in the Twentieth Century and heading into being the 46th state of the USA, but here it’s still very much the Wild West. 

It’s hot out there and things are simmering, but come evening it’s “yee-ha” time with plenty of music making and dancing.  Musical director, Huw Evans’ eight piece band is right there in a semi-pit stage-front, in costume, and with an eclectic mix of instruments, ranging from mandolin and violin to banjo and his own accordion. 

However, expectations from life out-west are disappointing, and there are undertones of seething sexual frustrations and more than a mite of menace.  When Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ opens the show, it is with an air of irony.  Curly McLain sings and all the rest of the cast sit around a long table, cynicism oozing from them.  It is an opportunity to meet the other characters, one by one in a slow-burn beginning, but when the momentum builds, as it does throughout the show, it is a wild conflagration of singing and action.

Arthur Darvill plays Curly, the chancer who can be at once charming and manipulative, a dreamer and a ruthless realist.  Darvill’s guitar and bluegrass singing imbue Curly with a deceptively laid-back patina, but it is he that is the prime mover of the plot. 

Anoushka Lucas portrays a multi-dimension heroine Laurey Williams, cautious in response to Curly’s advances.  She is sceptical when Curly sings about his Surrey with the Fringe on Top.  Has he really hired such a carriage as his passion-wagon of choice, or is it just a figment of his imagination?  Lucas, who is herself a composer, has a beautiful decorated singing style, epitomised in Many a New Day and People Will Say We’re in Love , both of which songs deny, unconvincingly, that she is attracted to Curly. 

The intrusive grit in the Laurey-Curly oyster is Jud Fry, a jobbing farmhand, who is infatuated with Laurey, and works on the farmstead belonging to her Aunt Eller.  Sullen, troubled and misunderstood, Jud becomes increasingly marginalised by everyone.   Patrick Vaill, in the role of this complex character is outstanding.  He cuts a farouche figure, a brooding indeterminate threat.  Yet, in Vaill’s hands, one can feel sympathy for Jud, the intensity of his emotions is palpable, and accentuated in the superb powerful singing of Lonely Room.  The room referred to in the song, a masterpiece of Rodger’s in its deviant style, is Jud’s home in his smokehouse from which he longs to be free of its dirt and solitude and find a girl of his own, namely Laurey.

Prior to Jud’s outpourings in this song, he has been visited in his smokehouse by Curley, in particularly vicious mood, who encourages Jud to commit suicide, with the cruel song, Pore Jud Is Daid.  The presentation of this scene is a remarkable coup de theatre for lighting designer Scott Zielinski.  His lighting plot makes the stark distinction between positive scenes, lit so brilliantly that light spills into the auditorium, and negative ones, in semi-darkness or in a total blackout.  The scene starts in the complete darkness, then by a hand-held night vision video-camera, the two actors’ faces being projected a full close-up on the cyclorama backdrop.  The reactions are shown in forensic detail, Jud’s quivering lips and then the fall of a tear … stupendous acting and consummate technical artistry.

The radical involvement of the technical theatre in telling the story, also extends into the Dream Ballet, Laurey’s sub-conscious unravelling of her desires, and of her confusion as to where her heart lies.  It becomes a solo dance, choreographed by John Heginbotham, in half-light and haze.  The dance sequence is performed with panache by French contemporary dancer Marie-Astrid Mence, figuring the development of the dream thoughts with vigour, from equine gallop to sensual imaginings.  Her confusion being given surreal illustration by a fly-drop of assorted cowboy boots.  Is this her fear of subjugation?

Less complicated but equally in a quandary is Ado Annie.  Should she choose the dependable but not too bright Will Parker or the exotic but not too committed Persian peddler, Ali Hakim?  Georgina Onuorah is priceless in the role of Ado, the girl who can’t say no (“I get sorry for him”).  Now here is a performer infectiously enjoying her role.  As the larger than life character, rustling with excitement in her froufrou petticoats, Onuorah gives it her all, and some.  And my, can she sing, a powerful resonant jazz voice knocks you off your feet.  I Cain’t Say No is her song, for she is sure she loves both her suitors.

Will has made a first-time trip to Kansas City and is amazed at the skyscrapers (a whole seven storeys!).  He tells of his adventures as he “went about”, clearly as an innocent about town.  But he did win $50 (1900’s money) at the fair, exactly the sum Ado Annie’s father, Andrew Carnes wants if he is to marry her.  James Patrick Davis (one of two members of the cast, with Vaill, who was in the US production) makes a whimsical Will, simple and gullible.  Not only does he sing in the appropriate hillbilly style, but does a tap-dance along the table in telling his traveller’s tale.

The peddler Ali is an all-too-different character, sharp and street-wise, but a likeable and easy-going rogue.  Stavros Demetraki puts a twinkle in the eye of the fun-loving Ali, who fancies Ado, but is sure-as-hell not going to marry her.  Carnes her father, played as a flint-hard, trigger-happy authoritarian by Greg Hicks, has other ideas, a shotgun wedding, literally.  Demetraki’s ducking-and-diving, quick-talking Ali, expresses his view in his animated It’s a Scandal! It’s a Outrage!  A cockerel in a hen-house exemplifies Ali’s preferred way of life.

To add to the romantic entanglement, the flirty Gertie Cummings is also fond of Curly.  Helen K Wint is an alluring and provocative Gertie, who is confident of her own power to capture hearts.  She is also a fluidly forceful singer, pitching in with Andrew Carnes and Aunt Eller in The Farmer and the Cowman, the argument around clashing methods of exploiting the land, a heated row that is defused by the authoritarian intervention of Aunt Eller.

Aunt Eller is no cuddly grandma.  Liza Sadovy gives her an edge, and some.  She is pragmatically amoral, obdurate and steely.  She is no quiet observer, but is in there, stealing an erotic kiss from Ali in passing.  Here is a for-instance where this production burrows into the darker aspects of the plot.

Oklahoma! introduced a piece of Americana to the wider world, the box-social, a charity auction in which the menfolk bid for a decorated picnic box for two, with the aim of sharing it with the woman who, ostensibly anonymously, made it.  In this production it is made clear that the box-social is really a cattle market, the men are clearly just buying the girls. 

There is the comedy side of this auction.  Unfortunately, Will spent all his $50 on gifts for Ado, and is desperate to redeem his purchase to get his bride money; whereas Ali is desperate to buy them from him to escape his forthcoming shotgun wedding.  However, Will is none too bright on commercial transactions.

In contrast, the auction to get box that they know to be Laurey’s, becomes a deadly serious competition between Curley and Jud, an all-in monetary duel.  This is not a production to pull punches and when the competition develops into confrontation, and ultimately the confrontation into violence, it is shockingly and starkly depicted with blood-splattered realism.  And it is made even more shocking in that it takes place at a wedding celebration.

Equally, the resolution of the plot in the murder “trial”, which is usually seen as a triumph of rough justice in a developing country, express in the culminating title song Oklahoma, “We know we belong to this land … the land we belong to is grand”.  Though here the requisitioned authority of the kangaroo court, questioned only by Cord Elam (Phillip Olagoke) and frowned upon by Mike (Raphael Bushay) is clearly not justice, but cold pragmatism.  It leaves the participants etiolated and traumatised.   Silence is used to great effect, paralleling the earlier use of darkness.

Nevertheless this musical is funny, it is entertaining, and there are plenty of ear-worms, but the punch that packs Oklahoma!  is a real gut punch, from an innovative look at an old favourite that is sad, visceral and highly memorable.   

Mark Aspen, February 2023

Photography by Marc Brenner

From → Musicals

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: