Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, first opened at the St James Theatre, New York on 31 March 1943, and ran on Broadway for over 5 years. There have since been over 30,000 productions worldwide, collecting numerous awards and box office records along the way, with a smash hit film version released in 1955.
To say, then, that the material is familiar would be an understatement, and the score is littered with titles that have become standards in musical theatre.
As a passionate advocate of musical theatre in all its forms, I welcome the perpetuation of any work that forms such an important part of the rich heritage of popular culture, but believe that any new production must have something new to say. One wonders what any new production of this 67 year-old piece, can hope to add, to present to a modern audience, now so used to the breakneck pace and spectacle of today’s rock opears and ‘event’ musicals.
This new revival from UK Productions, under the experienced direction of Julian Woolford presents a fairly faithful retelling of the story, based on an earlier work; Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs. The story, of a burgeoning romance set against a backdrop of conflict between farmers and cattlemen in America’s Western Frontier of 1907, has few obvious parallels for today’s audiences, and runs the risk of seeming tired and dis-engaging. However, this production wins through by the sheer energy and enthusiasm of it young and talented cast, and the simple but effective set design (also by Julian Woolford), which successfully conjures the atmosphere and conditions of the time in which it is set, without dominating and detracting from the simplicity of the plot.
The pace, especially in the first half, was slow at times, but that says more perhaps about our expectations of modern musicals, where plot is developed through music and little dialog exists in between songs, and is less of a criticism of this production. The show really came to life during the many ensemble production numbers, and Chris Hocking’s imaginative choreography skilfully portrayed the exuberance and innocence of the period, with the subtlest of modern edge, and showed the skills of the pleasingly large cast to best effect.
Mark Evans – perhaps best remembered as the runner-up on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s show Your Country Needs You - was a revelation, as Curly. From opening the show with ‘Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ to the rousing ‘Oklahoma!’, vocally he was a delight, and delivered a strong and believable performance. The pairing with Gemma Sutton, also vocally superb, as would-be love interest Laurey, created a beautiful, and believable couple, with energy and chemistry.
Pete Gallagher was also excellent as the brooding Jud Fry, injecting some menace into what would otherwise be a rather straightforward courtship, and Michelle Crook as Ado Annie, the girl ‘Who Cain’t Say No’, Joseph Pitcher, as the dashing Will Parker, and Vas Constanti, in a fine comedic performance as Ali Hakim the peddler, provide relief from the drama, with a rather more light hearted love triangle.
Leading the cast, as matriarch Aunt Eller, Marti Webb has enormous stage presence, and brought warmth, charm and feisty-ness to proceedings. The role does not offer much opportunity to display the full range of her abilities - much of the first half being spent upstage - however the rousing ‘Farmer and the Cowman’, which opened the second act, finally brought Ms Webbto the forefront, and allowed her to deliver the powerhouse performance that we have come to expect.
Where this show is not ground-breaking, there is still much to enjoy in this production, even for those with more ‘sophisticated’ requirements from musical theatre. Certainly the Bournemouth audience seemed delighted, and it is sure to please the crowds on its forthcoming tour.