Oklahoma! at the National - Olivier

Note: The following review is from Oklahoma!'s original run at the National Theatre which finished 3 October 1998. The production transfers to the West End's Lyceum Theatre 20 January 1999.

It s not without reason that Trevor Nunn s production of Oklahoma! has quickly become the National's biggest hit to date. It is, quite simply, a fabulous affair that manages to be joyous without being corny, spectacular without showy. A wonderful British interpretation of an American classic.

The plot of Oklahoma! will never win any awards for complexity, with narry the slightest flinch let alone a twist in the tail. Young Laurey (Josefina Gabrielle), daughter of a farmer, is sought after by two beaux - the strapping and happy-go-lucky Curly (Hugh Jackman) and the altogether more sinister, and downright perverted Jud Fry (Shuler Hensley). Who will have the honour of taking her to the box social and winning her affections? She marries one (guess who?) and the scorned fellow turns up at the wedding to ruin everybody s fun before a happy ending arrives aboard a surrey with a fringe on top.

In Nunn s version, all of this happens as usual, but there is a new character in this production which gives it added weight - the vast Oklahoma territory itself. From designer Anthony Ward s inspired opening sequence - when we panoramically glimpse the huge, cloud-filled sky, the small dot of a farm on the prairie, the height of the corn fields - we are constantly reminded of the expansiveness of this land and the unique challenges which its settlers face. Challenges which include the rivalries between farmers who want to fence and cultivate the land and ranchers who want their herds to run free over it.

Susan Stroman s choreography, a departure from Agnes De Mille s original, also captures the vibrancy and fear of the settlers psyche. The acrobatic energy of Act Two s opening number, ‘The Farmer and The Cowman , is the evening s major showstopper.

And then we have the cast. Nunn took a gamble with this collection of largely unknowns and it has paid off handsomely, most notably in the form of Jackman. You d never know he was Australian for his spot-on American accent and his good-nature as Curly is positively infectious. Gabrielle is also fetching in a young Judy Garland kind of way and Hensley creates a Jud who is terrifyingly unbalanced in his loneliness. These three are mirrored by another wonderful, though more light-hearted, trio in the romantic sub-plot of the nice-but-dim Will Parker (Jimmy Johnston), the fickle Ado Annie (Vicki Simon) and the fearfully funny Ali Hakim (Peter Polycarpou). The company s one name, comedienne Maureen Lipman, enjoys a custom-fit cameo as the stalwart Aunt Eller.

All in all, Oklahoma! proves once again that the National knows better than most how musicals really should be done. And how ‘bout those old Rodgers and Hammerstein songs? ‘Oh What a Beautiful Mornin indeed!

For more background on Nunn's re-interpretation, see the What's On Stage feature, Is it OK? The Modernising of Oklahoma!. Terri Paddock