The corn was golden and the music sublime. Oklahoma! burst into song and dance tonight at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate – and the audience were delighted. What an opener for its UK tour!
You know that you’re in for a treat when Ashley Day’s heroic cowpoke, Curly McLain, ambles onto the stage, flashing a megawatt smile, singing Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’.
This is a wonderfully sung production, from those in the leading roles like Day and Charlotte Wakefield right through to the ensemble.
Oklahoma! (complete with its well-deserved exclamation mark) was Rodgers & Hammerstein’s first joint venture and it’s faultless. It is a true icon from a golden age stuffed with competition.
The score arguably features more recognisible songs than any other you could mention, and, although the musical is now pushing nearly 70, it’s as still as cute and wholesome as a freshly baked apple pie.
It’s no wonder Royal & Derngate decided that it was ripe for a comeback.
Director Rachel Kavanagh has done a fantastic job at reinvigorating a vintage classic that not only features some exemplary choreography (Drew McOnie take a bow – loved the dance with the rolled hay) but also gives us a strong story.
It’s easy to become nostalgic for the old shows, remembering the wonderful songs and sometimes cheesy performances without recollecting the darker shades.
There’s no doubt that Oklahoma! ends act one on a chilling note that I’d all but forgotten.
While the central story is the hesitant love story between the lovesick Curly and the feisty Laurey Williams (Wakefield), there’s a more sinister thread featuring the swarthy, malevolent, and downright frightening farm hand Jud Fry.
He works for Laurey and Aunt Eller (the superb, wisecracking and almost unrecognisible Belinda Lang) and scares the pants off the young girl with his unwanted attention.
When Laurey stupidly accepts his offer to take her to a party, to make Curly jealous, she soon realises she’s made a huge mistake.
Nic Greenshields is a tall man who I last saw putting his height to great use as Big Jule in Guys & Dolls. He’s got the market cornered in delivering intimidating black performances designed to terrify (but what a great singing voice).
Laurey, her head in the clouds after sniffing something she shouldn’t (we won’t go there), embarks on an extended dream sequence which sees her torn between the handsome Curly and the violent Jud.
I don’t ever remember it being so threatening and physical – and in complete contrast to the rest of the show. It’s a real shocker.
The confident Ashley Day and Miss Wakefield are sensational together but there’s no overlooking Lucy May Barker’s flirtaceous Ado Annie who is the object of desire for lusty cowboy Will (James O’Connell) and equally randy Ali Hakim, an itinerant pedlar (the excellent Gary Wilmot in a small but stand out comedy turn).
And that’s where Oklahoma! excels. The dialogue is solid, telling a real story about life in the 1900s in America’s burgeoning plains and territories; it’s funny without being corny and it keeps you interested.
And the minor characters are as richly drawn as the main roles.
Then there are Rodgers & Hammerstein’s songs like The Surrey With The Fringe On Top, I Can’t Say No, People Will Say We’re In Love, even Jud’s powerfully presented Lonely Room.
And, to cap it, a top class cast give a knockout performance that brings the show alive.
Francis O’Conner’s impressive wooden set (at least a couple of forests must have been felled for its construction) evoke the pioneering frontiersman era while musical supervisor Stephen Ridley enthusiastically conducts from the pit.
Oklahoma! plays on the Derngate stage until February 28 before embarking on a UK tour.
2015 Tour Dates
March 3-7, Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton March 17-21, The Lowry, Salford March 24-28, Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin April 14-18, Alhambra Theatre, Bradford April 21-25, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh April 28-May 2, Theatre Royal, Nottingham May 5-9, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton May 12-16, The Hawth, Crawley May 19-23, Theatre Royal, Bath May 26-30, Hall for Cornwall, Truro June 2-6, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham June 16-20, Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury June 23-27, Theatre Royal, Newcastle June 30-July 4, Hippodrome, Birmingham July 14-18, Hippodrome, Bristol July 21-August 1, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield August 4-8, Wycombe Swan.