OKLAHOMA! Royal and Derngate, Northampton and TOURING

KI YIP I YAY

It’s back. Again. But worth the buggy-ride: brightly directed by Rachel Kavanaugh and choreographed by Drew McOnie with athleticism, wit and inventiveness: ballet, ragtime and brawling naturalism (no tap this time) makes that element so striking that some of the London dance critics would do well to stir out of town and have a look.
The casting is a delight. The first few sung words are from offstage – Oh what a beautiful morning! – and when he appears against the sunrise gap in Francis O’Connor’s barn set, Ashley Day sure is the purdiest chap ever to wear leather chaps. Sings like a lark, insouciant and relaxed, as Laurey, (Charlotte Wakefield), stumps around in a fierce divided-skirt, her pure high soprano adding innocence to her tomboy mien. And we’re away.

The septuagenarian Rodgers and Hammerstein blockbuster itself is almost too familiar for comfort. In any revival, the first act must navigate round the perilous fact that every single tune – they come so thick and fast that there is barely time for a few sentences between numbers – is achingly familiar from Radio 2’s more vintage moments, not to mention lift muzak and call-waiting . So the moment Laurie and Curley swing into “People will say we’re in love” your attention threatens to wander, however good they are. A period of aw-shucks good natured Old West hokum is of course necessary, and Belinda Lang’s robust, sharp-edged Aunt Ellen is a joy to watch, efficiently tubbing and mangling an entire household wash in scene one. Lucy May Barker’s Ado Annie shakes it up nicely too with her I Cain’t say no: here’s a deeply engaging comedienne, who even vouchsafes us a flash of her robust pioneer panties beneath the froth of gingham petticoat.

But the teasing merriment of the first fifty minutes is needed to make the contrast with this show’s – always oddly unexpected – darkening as Curly beards the lonely hired man Jud in his hovel lined with dirty pictures and teases him that he should hang himself to get any sympathy.

I have seen this scene done with ironic lightness, which the lyrics certainly permit (“laid to rest, his hands upon his chest, his fingernails have never been so clean” etc). But Kavanaugh allows its full perplexing nastiness, and Nic Greenshields as Jud Fry is a remarkable presence; immense next to the elfin Ashley Day, stooping, black-bearded and threatening (among his last few parts I see are Big Jule, Big Davy, Big Mac and The Beast. Casting directors look up nervously, sigh with relief and tick the Big Bastard box). But he is more than a hunk: Greenshields anchors the conflict of the plot. His immense baritone is reverberating and dark, his despairing solo of murderous loneliness and desire chills, threat and pathos mingling unnervingly. As for the dream ballet in which Laurey’s unspoken fears of rape are wordlessly enacted, McOnie and Kavanaugh move the mood startlingly from athletic, ingenious cowboy fun with cylindrical straw-bales to an explicit terror of depravity and violated innocence. Charlotte Wakefield throws herself into this with real power.

In fact, for all the hokey, it is tougher than the last West End version. But the wit keeps it rattling irresistibly along with a fringe on top, never slackening pace. Ki-yip-i-yay, Oklahoma, OK! And much as I love the West End, as seat prices there go stratospheric it is good that classic musicals with top production values, big casts and solid live bands (note also Sheffield’s fabulous Anything Goes) are richocheting gaily round the regions to be seen by anyone who can raise as little as £ 16.

BOX OFFICE 01604 624811 http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk to Saturday 28 Feb
then TOURING to 8 August, Wolverhampton next!
rating four 4 Meece Rating

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