'Oklahoma!' at the Young Vic review — Rodgers and Hammerstein has never been so sexy
Content warning: This review discusses suicide and mental health.
When this intimate and innovative revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic premiered in New York, many, including the cast, dubbed the show “Sexy Oklahoma.” The hashtag #thisoklahomafucks permeated social media, as director Daniel Fish’s production showcases the darker, seductive elements of the story about the divisions in a local community on the brink of the titular territory’s statehood.
Well, as someone who saw that production off Broadway at St. Ann’s Warehouse, on Broadway three times, and for the first time at the Young Vic last night, I’m here to tell you, this Oklahoma still fucks.
Fish, co-directing with Jordan Fein here, replicates his Tony-winning revival, complete with Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher’s wood-panelled set and Terese Wadden’s contemporary-yet-period-appropriate colourful costumes. Scott Zielinski’s lighting and Joshua Thorson’s projections create the eerie moodiness of the production.
The genius of Fish’s concept for the revival is in the role reversal of the two male leads: Jud and Curly. You know, the farmer and the cowman who can’t be friends because they both want to be with the same woman. Traditionally, Curly is the strapping hero who wins the girl, while Jud is the conniving farm hand. However, without changing a word of the text, Fish highlights just how wrong we’ve been about these characters.
Fish stages the iconic smokehouse scene, where Curly confronts Jud about who is going to bring Laurey the box social, in pitch black, with video projections of Jud’s reactions throughout, as Curly bullies Jud and tries to convince him to kill himself. Underlying this interaction and throughout Curly and Jud’s feud is a level of homo-eroticism, as the actors share the same microphone and perform “Poor Jud Is Dead” as an emotional duet, their faces centimetres apart.
And London audiences, you are in for a real treat because Patrick Vaill is making his UK stage debut, after originating the role of Jud in this production from Bard College where he was a student all the way to Broadway. His emotional depth as the misunderstood Jud has only gotten deeper and more nuanced with time, and the result is utterly heart shattering.
If you’re lucky enough to be sitting on the side of the theatre, which is situated in a thrust semi-circle with the cast in folding chairs around the edge, you’ll get to watch Vaill react as Jud throughout. He’s never out of character, sitting there shifting and smouldering. It’s a truly immaculate character study
The bumbling and delightful James Davis also crossed the pond to play Will Parker again, but the rest of the cast is new. Anoushka Lucas is stoic and alluring as Laurey, a perfect foil for the swirl of male energy around her, establishing Laurey as more than just a typical ingenue but instead as a complex woman with agency.
Arthur Darvill puts an Elvis Presley spin on Curly, and rather than go for broad strokes bully, he’s more calculated. He’s the rock star who gets the girl, leaving no prisoners in his path. Liza Sadovy as Aunt Eller and Stavros Demetraki as Ali Hakim also bring impressive grit and humour to the company.
As Ado Annie, Marisha Wallace gives an entirely fresh take, complete with full-power vocals. Her rendition of “I Can’t Say No” becomes a feminist anthem about a woman’s desire, and as she struts around the stage, embracing her power, she proves that Annie is the temptress and Will and Ali are just lucky to be there.
It seems like a cliché to say that this show couldn’t be more timely, but unfortunately, its relevance just keeps getting, well, more relevant. As a story about a divided territory with classes at odds, struggling to find common ground to become a unified state, the parallels with our divided world are painfully clear.
Whether it’s abortion legistature in the United States Supreme Court, the war in Ukraine, or British politics and the recent UK elections, people have been fighting over laws, land, and perspectives since the beginning of time.
If only territory folks would stick together.
Photo credit: Patrick Vaill in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at the Young Vic (Photo by Marc Brenner)
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