The story is set at the turn of the century in the Indian territory of the American West and concerns the rivalry of Curly, a cowboy, and Jud, the hired farmhand, who are both seeking the affections of 'Laurey', a young girl who lives on the farm with Aunt Eller.
This is a very disappointing production from the Royal National Theatre. The story and music is not strong enough to keep you interested for the 3hrs 15min that the show lasts. "Oklahoma", has to compete with many musicals on the West End at the moment and I really don't think it stands up well against them.
The show starts promisingly enough with a nice setting as the Sun rises and birds fly and the see-though curtain opens to reveal a farm holding and then the great song 'Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin' is sang. Yes, I thought this is going to be good. However, the pace begins to slow down and not much seems to be happening. Why is this? Well mainly because the music is quite dull and the choreography not much better, and the story extremely weak. The whole production looked as if it was stretched out to make it as long as possible, resulting in the show lacking pace and feeling extremely dated. However, the audience seemed to like the show as they clapped to the songs and half of them gave a standing ovation at the end . Mind you it was press night and so most of the cast members' families would be in the audience!
Although the show was desperately lacking substance, the acting as is often the case, saved the show from being a completely wasted evening. Maureen Lipman produces a convincing 'Aunt Eller' and adds some much-needed humour to the show. Hugh Jackman as Curly, and Josefina Gabrielle as 'Laurey, both have strong voices and sang competently. I particularly liked the character of 'Ali Hakim' the travelling salesman, who kept getting himself into trouble with the fathers of the women he chases. Peter Polycarpou, who plays Ali, pulls off the character wonderfully.
It seems I'm on my own on this one as the show received good reviews from the popular press. MICHAEL COVENEY of THE DAILY MAIL says "A truly great evening." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE of THE TIMES says, "Has there ever been a higher standard of dance in any subsidised theatre? No." CHARLES SPENCER of THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says "The National has a huge hit on its hands." MICHAEL COVENEY of THE DAILY MAIL says "A truly great evening, easily the equal of Guys and Dolls and Carousel. Enjoy." NICOLAS DE JONGH of THE EVENING STANDARD was more luke-warm saying " A rich feast of dream-pie, but not my kind of meal".
There are a few good songs and there are moments of great entertainment, but not enough. I think if 30 to 45 minutes had been cut it would have given the show more zest, which would have been more suitable for a modern audience and not have given me such a restless evening.
When Oklahoma! opened on Broadway in 1943, it broke the mould. Unashamedly set outside Manhattan, without a splashy opening, integrating story and songs, and with a fifteen minute ballet ending the first half, it was unlike anything Broadway had seen. So much so that a well known Broadway producer of the time (Mike Todd) famously said "No gags, no gals, no chance". He was, of course, wrong, and the record 2,212 performances it notched up in New York stood for fifteen years (before being beaten by My Fair Lady).
The story revolves around two triangles of characters - Laurey, a pretty young girl, and the two men that love her, the clean-cut Curly and the more sinister Jud Fry; and the more light-hearted trio of Ado Annie and her two suitors, Will Parker, and a peddler, Ali Hakim. Curly, having muffed his chance to go to the box social (an evening where the men bid for picnic hampers and the girls who made them) with Laurey (who goes with Jud), sells all his worldly goods to beat Jud and buy her hamper. Finally certain of their love for each other, they marry - but the love-torn and angry Jud turns up and whilst attacking Curly, falls on his own knife. Meanwhile, Ali tries his best to avoid marrying Ado Annie - and eventually succeeds by getting Will the $50 he needs to marry her himself.
The music is Rodgers and Hammerstein at their very best. Best known in this country for The Sound Of Music, in America, Oklahoma! made them. "Oh What A Beautiful Mornin'", "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top", "I Cain't Say No", "Many A New Day", "People Will Say We're In Love", "The Farmer And The Cowman" and of course "Oklahoma!" itself form the basis of a truly memorable score.
From the very start, where a near transparent curtain encloses the circular Olivier stage, you are aware of the quality of the forthcoming performance. Some have said that the National is no place for the mounting of such a popular classic - but even they should be silenced by such a heartswellingly beautiful production. Universally excellent performances from the cast (in singing, dancing, acting - whatever you care to mention) and a simple, effective set designed by Andrew Ward (superbly evoking the wide-open spaces as well as the more confined, intimate moments between the characters) display this well-loved show at its very best.
After being brought up on Curlys with powerful, booming voices (like Howard Keel, or Gordon Macrae in the film) it is initially strange to witness one singing with a more delicate realism. Rather than 'bursting' into song, Hugh Jackman (who plays Curly here) slips seamlessly from dialogue to song and back so that it seems the most natural thing in the world. In fact, bearing in mind the quality of those that have played the characters before them, the leading actors would do well just to impress - but they excel, with truly memorable performances: Josafina Gabrielle (Laurey) is suitably tough, but confused; Peter Polycarpou is wonderfully funny as the loveable rogue Ali; Jimmy Johnston is clearly a talented man, and impresses everyone as the rope-twirling, lassooing, back-flipping, singing and dancing Will Parker; and Shuler Hensey gives a mesmeric performance as the tormented Jud Fry - showing the sadness of the man behind the hulk.
Trevor Nunn's direction is secure and delicate, and as David Benedict noted in The Independent, he elicits a strikingly truthful tenderness from the leads. Despite knowing they will end up together, the audience finds their relationship extremely touching. Susan Stroman's choreography is similarly impressive - thrilling, energetic and electrifying, but above all, expressive, without ever impeding the dramatic flow. Such is her reputation (she has also choreographed Showboat and Crazy For You in recent years), that the normally cagey Rodgers and Hammerstein estate have given her the freedom to change the original Agnes de Mille choreography (a permission they have never previously granted).
The only query with the show would be its use of gunshots. Often, there is a problem in theatres where over-loud and startling gunshots induce a nervous laughter from the audience, which frequently interrupts the dramatic flow. Here this is avoided, but in the process, the sound has been reduced to little more than that of a cap-gun and it does sound strangely artificial. Leaving this very minor niggle to one side though, this is a classic show performed superbly well, by a fantastic cast. If you can get to see it before it closes in October, you won't be disappointed. If you can't, you'll have to wait for the cast recording to be released, and try and imagine what you've missed.
In the programme for OKLAHOMA! at the Olivier Theatre we are reminded that another musical, north of the river, is a genuine epic. I totally agree that , on paper, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's SHOWBOAT justifies such a claim. It set new standards of excellence in musical theatre when it was first perfomed in 1927.
On stage however, the Prince Edward Theatre production of SHOWBOAT suffered two major problems, in my humble opinion. The director, Harold Prince, in some people's eyes the greatest of all modern exponents of the musical play, seemed unwilling to bring the venerable piece into a contemporary form - it lumbered along like Old Man River - earning our respect but causing us to wonder if we'd fall asleep or miss the last train home.
The other problem was that the brilliant woman- of-the-hour choreographer, Susan Stroman, was seemingly constricted about bringing any element of pace into the turgid Mississippi story line.
Happily for us, and I believe, generations of theatregoers to come, OKLAHOMA! suffers no such shortcomings. Seemingly set to transfer to the West End next year, it will take another theatre out of circulation for years and years - inspiring millions to see it, and repatriating some of the shows profits to our beloved National Theatre.
Trevor Nunn's direction is brave and uncluttered by backward thinking. He seems to have given Susan Stroman, the freedom of the city - to do what she will with this epic from yesteryear - also written by Oscar Hammerstein , but in partnership with Richard Rodgers.
I cannot think of another contemporary musical work where the dance is so gratifyingly liberated. With one exception, the charming leading man Curly (Hugh Jackman), every significant member of the company dances with freedom, confidence and joy, sure of their footing and a place in theatre history. We will remember them.
As for Curly - why would you expect a full blooded cow poke who's going to get the girl, to be a hoofer. It wouldn't look right, would it - not when he does everything else so well.
The National Theatre's Olivier can create transports of delight without opening it's mouth if the set and lighting designers are allowed free rein, as once again appears to be the case. Anthony Ward and David Hersey capture the bleakness of the barren waste without depressing us - in seconds they transform the set to the intimacy of a backyard barndance - and scare the hell out of us in a dream sequence which becomes a bloody, and memorable, red nightmare.
Modern directors like Trevor Nunn understand the value of drama, even in a sugar-sweet show, which is 55 years old. Which is why this show will survive in the harsher environment of today.
Rumour has it that Aunt Eller (Maureen Lipman) was apprehensive about gracing us with her presence. I'd be surprised if she has any doubts now. She is the focal point who brings her authority into the budding relationships without ever losing her cool, the love of her fellow Okies, or of her adoring public.
The play centres on the relationship between the Farmers and The Cowboys, represented by Laurey (Josefina Gabrielle) and Curly (Hugh Jackman) respectively. She is a reluctant recipient of Curly's advances because of her assumed betrothal to an ugly-mug farmer, Jud Fry (Shuler Hensley), who nearly spoils it all for us, but eventually gets it where it hurts and gets fitted for a wooden overcoat.
In performance terms they are a superb trio. Josefina is equally gifted as an actress, singer and dancer - Hugh is a charmer who will be whisked away to the big screen and Shuler will never be short of a meal ticket while villainy is the staple diet of our modern society.
Will Parker (Jimmy Johnston) earns his corn. He's a soppy, steer dogging, hunk of manhood who can't find the way to tie down the hormonally overcharged Ado Annie Carnes (Vicki Simon). Her receptivity gets her into every known form of romantic trouble, especially with the frivolous, neurotic, sexually dexterous travelling salesman from Persia, Ali Hakim, brilliantly played by Peter Polycarpou.
The play is littered with great songs. Oh What A Beautiful Morning. The Surrey With The Fringe On The Top. Many A New Day. People Will Say We're In Love. And, of course, Oklahoma which brings us to a triumphant finale.
Overriding everything is the dance, performed by everyone so superbly, on those magnificent sets.
Oklahoma is a treasure chest which you'll be able to open at the Lyceum theatre in the New Year.
Meanwhile, tickets at the National are like gold dust. Rightly so.