I’m struggling to think of a hornier theatre production than Daniel Fish’s radical revamp of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1943 musical ‘Oklahoma!’.
A big pre-pandemic hit in New York – where it was dubbed ‘sexy Oklahoma!’ – the first half in particular of Fish’s deceptively barebones production leans really creatively into the fact that very little happens in ‘Oklahoma!’ beyond its characters thirsting after each other, and thirsting hard.
Rather than any sort of recreation of the town of Claremore and its surrounds, Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher’s design sets everything in a sort of barebones wooden dancehall with the audience set up traverse on two sides, the band sprawled out across one, the house lights dazzlingly bright, and tables groaning with anachronistic tinnies of Bud Light. It’s discombobulating: perhaps we’re in 1906 (when ‘Oklahoma!’ is set); perhaps we’re in a sort of spiritual limbo common to all boring rural towns. The musical’s signature song ‘Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’ feels ironic in this no place, and its lyrics are often refrained and twisted into weird, bitter patterns.
What fills the void is lust. There is no coyness in the show’s two central love triangles: Anouska Lucas’s farmgirl Laurey Williams vacillates between looking impassively cool and like a desperate horndog as she’s wooed by Arthur Darvill’s cocksure cowboy Curley and Patrick Vaill’s brooding farmhand Jud. At one point Laurey is clearly ready to pounce upon her exuberant friend Ado Annie (Marisha Wallace), so worked up is she by her gal pal’s account of being caught between James Davis’s lovelorn dope Will and Stavros Demetraki‘s slick lothario Ali. Everyone is heading to the big dance tonight: the sense of it being one of the limited things that ever actually happens in Claremore is palpable; what they hope to do there is obvious.
In a surreal way, Fish has injected realism to ‘Oklahoma!’, or at least he’s dispersed the cheery fug of good-time vibes and tackled the story underneath with considerable psychological acuity. So yes, the characters are bored and horny. But also Curley and Jud’s rivalry over Laurey is far more nuanced than usual. Classically, ‘Oklahoma!’ is simply an elaborate coronation for Curley, who is obviously meant for Laurey, with Jud the weird, disturbed oddball who never really stands a chance. Here Davill’s smirking Curley isn’t significantly more sympathetic than Vaill’s glowering but not crazy Jud, who at the very least manages a snog with Laurey. The final showdown between the two men is weird and macabre, a real rejoinder to the usual glib happy ending.
Crucially, it’s very well cast. Lucas is wonderful as the flinty-eyed but vulnerable Laurey; Wallace is a wellspring of good vibes and vocal powerhousing as Annie. Darvill hits just the right note of ambiguity as Curley - charming, yes, but entitled and mean to returning US cast member Vaill’s excellent Jud. Also returning from the US, Davis is a rubbery-bodied dream, bounding about the stage as the blissfully dopey Will. Crucially, Fish has allowed the Annie love triangle plot to stay funny and sweet and largely unaltered – you can radically revamp a show while holding on to the bits that work just fine.
Fish and team have other tricks up their sleeves too: sections that take part in total blackout; the dream sequence, turned into a wild dance from performer Marie-Astrid Mence, set to a shredded, Hendrix-style arrangement of ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’; the climactic wedding sequence that sees the hitherto stripped back set turn into something rather more theatrical.
If I have a criticism it’s that it’s all a bit meta: you’ll get a lot more out of certain sequences – notably the ending – if you’re familiar with how ‘Oklahoma!’ usually plays out, and can therefore appreciate what Fish has done here. The Open Air Theatre’s brilliant ‘Carousel’ of last year felt like a correction of a Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, whereas this can sometimes feel like a comment on it.
Nonetheless, if some crib notes wouldn’t go amiss, Fish has crafted something genuinely new and special from ‘Oklahoma!’, or perhaps excavated a truth about it that was there all along, but buried. It’s reconfigured as a smouldering parable of small-town suffocation, of people who dance and drink and screw because there’s nothing else to do, and the inevitable consequences of letting that play out. It bucks almost every cliche about staging a trad musical, while ultimately hanging on to that which makes ‘Oklahoma!’ loveable, critiquing what makes it problematic, and having a cast so good that you’re going to have a pretty good time no matter what you think about the innovations. Sexy? Yes! But it goes deeper than that.