When I started hearing salacious rumours online about a New York production of the Rodger & Hammerstein classic nicknamed ‘Sexy Oklahoma!’, I knew I had to see it, seduced by the promise of a staging that would strip all the gingham kitsch and yeehawing jollity from this 1943 musical.
I was raised on Golden Age movie musicals, but was disillusioned with their sanitised aesthetic, with the Technicolor sheen that the friends I attempted to convert had bristled at. Since then, director Daniel Fish’s massively hyped production has soared from New York's St Ann's Warehouse to Broadway, before being remounted (with some original cast in place) at London's Young Vic. A West End victory lap was inevitable. And I was chomping at the bit (to use an appropriately Western metaphor) to finally experience it.
It turns out that when people say ‘Sexy Oklahoma!’, they really mean it. Not because this production’s full of rippling biceps or heaving bosoms – or even actual sex – but because it’s an edgy, rock ‘n’ roll depiction of a community whose only way to cut loose is by having sex or firing a gun. And they do plenty of both.
With sex so firmly in the foreground, everything about this story shifts. In traditional productions, boy-crazy farm girl Ado Annie is pure comic relief. When she sings ‘I'm just a girl who can't say no!’, it's a straightforward excuse for some jolly old-timey slut-shaming. But here, Georgina Onuorah plays an Annie whose desires can't be so easily laughed at: she tenderly cradles her more prim and proper friend Laurey (Anoushka Lucas) in her arms as she sings about loving that's ‘sweeter than cream’, centimetres away from a kiss. And this Laurey is rapt, not judgemental.
Laurey’s own desire is meant to be reserved for all-American good guy Curly, who traditionally easily sees off the sexual threat from brooding farmhand Jud. But here, that central love triangle is a true three-way. Arthur Darvill’s Curly is a strange, nervy character who kind of hates, kind of is obsessed with his rival: Patrick Vaill's mesmerising, vulnerable Jud. And Laurey wants him, too; her eventual wedding to Curly is soaked in blood and regret.
Even before this production's resolutely unhappy ending, it's miles away from the kind of sickly fare West End audiences are so often fed on.
Visually, it’s sparse and determinedly unpretty, Wyndham Theatre’s gilded auditorium contrasting oddly with a stage lined with blonde plywood and guns (an echo of Jamie Lloyd's iconoclastic MDF-filled ‘The Seagull’ last year). Its flattened performances stifle some of the original’s laughs - here, trader Ali Hakim is de-exoticised, with Stavros Demetraki delivering his lines with monotone detachment, not ‘comedy’ foreignness. And its dream ballet is closer to a nightmare, performer Marie-Astrid Mence dancing through green light and vast billows of smoke to the sound of brilliant orchestrator Daniel Kluger's jagged, shredded take on this musical’s score. Cowboy boots fall to the stage around her, like the detritus of some kind of vast farmhand orgy in the heavens above her.
Some audience members might feel cheated of their uplifting Western jolly but if you love ‘Oklahoma!’ enough to seek out this production, you're bound to be at the very least fascinated by the strange brutality it reveals at the heart of its story. It's a reminder that although ’40s social conservatism stopped Rodgers & Hammerstein from referencing sex directly, it didn't stop them from using lust as the engine that powers their musical. And if you don't know ‘Oklahoma!’? Go, and hear its deathlessly brilliant melodies tainted by the popping of beer ringpulls or Nirvana-esque vocal fatalism. Maybe you’ll even want to seek out the peppier but magical originals, afterwards.