Sparkling revival of a classic

curly and laurey

Farmer and cowboy being friends: Charlotte Wakefield and Ashley Day as Laurey and Curly. Pictures: Pamela Raith

Oklahoma

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

****

THERE’S a bright, golden haze, all right, and it is over the Grand with this splendid revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first musical collaboration.

Opening in 1943 the musical is older than most of the audience but it hardly shows it in this sparkling production which seems as fresh as a daisy thanks in part to a real countrified timber set of a prairie homestead and bare plank barn from Francis O’Connor and clever lighting from Tim Mitchell.

Ten minutes in and you have already had show standards Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ and The Surrey With the Fringe on Top which brings in our main characters, cowboy Curly McLain, played by Ashley Day, farmer Laurey Williams, played by Charlotte Wakefield and her Aunt Eller, played with lovely comic timing by Belinda Lang, still fondly remembered as Bill in 2point4Children.

For those who don’t know the story Curly and Laurey are in love, except Laurey is playing not so much had to get as a hostile protagonist, while Eller is a sort of referee and promoter of their romantic fisticuffs.

Day and Wakefield have fine voices in their own right and they blend well together in their duets particularly the at first funny and then romantic reprise of People Will Say We are In Love. unt EllerGood voices do not always produce a pleasing duet.

Not that singing is their only attribute, the pair can dance and they can act and are eminently likeable, which is half the battle with any audience. Even knowing the story we are still willing them to sort it out and get hitched.

Turn of the century, 1906, Oklahoma territory - it's not even a state - is an innocent world where a kiss is as far as it goes, unless you want to see her pa’s shotgun up real close. 

Belinda Lang as Aunt Eller gives a performance you can't fail to notice, particularly when she points a shotgun at you

That is except for one dark cloud on the horizon - the lumbering, non-too-bright, menacing farm hand Jud Fry

Jud lives in the smokehouse, has a penchant for pictures of naked ladies and is looking to expand from theory to practicals with Laurey and he is played beautifully by the giant of a man Nic Greenshields , who displays a rich baritone in Pore Jud is Daid and the sad and sinister Lonely Room. Greenshields, incidentally, won lots of plaudits as The Phantom of the Opera in the West End.

Which brings us to West End regular Gary Wilmot, fresh from the Hippodrome panto, as the Persian Peddler Ali Hakim.

Wilmot dispenses with the heavy or comic accents employed in some productions and turns Ali into a sort of Midwestern Del Boy, a wheeler dealer whose way with the ladies leads not so much them as him astray, bringing a fine knowledge of paternal shotguns to his life.

It is a nicely played comic performance as is Lucy May Barker’s Ado Annie Cornes, who tells us I Cain’t Say No! as she flits between any man who talks purty to her while her one(ish) true love, Will Parker, nicely played by James O’Connell, keeps amassing the $50 he needs to show her father so that he can marry her – then promptly losing it.

And we can’t forget Gerti Cummings, played by Kara Lane, who has aali and ado laugh that could shatter an anvil and a father with a shotgun – ask Ali all about that.owboys and cowgirls, The Farmer and The Cowmen who should be friends, never put a foot wrong  with some particularly lively dance numbers choreographed by Drew McOnie.

The inclusion of the dream ballet sequence at the end of Act I is a bold move though. Laurey, drugged by a magic potion smelling salts bought from Ali, has a dream in which she is chased by Jud and Curly is killed by the farmhand as he tries to rescue her.

It was included by Rodgers in his original score but is omitted by many productions to save several minutes and, although here it is beautifully done, and interesting to watch, it still seems a little incongruous.

Ado Annie Carnes, played by Lucy May Barker is managing to not say no yet again this time to Gari Wimot's Ali Hakim

Perhaps will ballet and dance more accessible we have moved on. The ballet and the whole show though are helped by  10 piece band under musical director Stephen Ridley.

Stephen Edis was responsible for the orchestra reduction arrangements and has given the music a freshness which makes it sound much more modern than its 72 years.

And that applies to the whole show, directed by Rachel Kavanaugh. It is fresh, lively, inoffensive and fun.

It is well sung, well acted, well lit and well set. There is a clever huge circular void in the wooden plank wall at the back which closes for dramatic scenes and opens with an ever changing sky with lighting taking it from dawn to dusk, sunshine to moonlight – and it even manages corn as high as an elephant’s eye briefly at one point. To 07-03-15

Roger Clarke

03-03-15

Oklahoma was based on Lynn Riggs’ now largely forgotten and little visited  1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs which managed just 64 performances on Broadway. It was notable for having Tex Ritter as Cord Elam and understudy for Curly, singing four cowboy songs and Lee Strasberg as the Syrian Peddler. Strasberg went on to found the Actor’s Studio in New York and is regarded as the father of method acting in the USA.

 

Meanwhile in the buggy at the back . . .

****

THIS wonderful old musical may not have the spectacular moments that illuminate some of the modern shows, but it has a warmth and charm that endears it to current theatre audiences.

You can see it again and again without tiring of the story of rivalry between cowboys and farmers, romance and a dash of menace from the inevitable villain.

Add to that the delightful music and lyrics of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and it’s easy to see why a musical that made its debut on Broadway in 1943 is still touring the globe without any sign of losing its appeal.

This new production has been given a few neat little tweaks by director Rachel Kavanaugh, and the timber interlocking set designed by Francis O’Connor is the best I have seen for this musical, even though there was one slight hitch on opening night.

The leads are outstanding, Ashley Day, the dashing cowboy, Curly, and Charlotte Wakefield, his pretty girlfriend Laurey, providing real electricity while teasing each other before peaking with that beautiful duet, People Will Say We’re In Love.

Almost matching them, punch for punch, especially in the humour stakes, are Lucy May Barker, as Ado Annie, the girl who can’t say no, and James O’Connell, Will Parker, who can marry her if he manages to save 50 dollars.

A powerful performance, full of menace, comes from Nic Greenshields (hired hand Jud Fry), with Gary Wilmot an amusing Persian pedlar Ali Hakim, without the accent.

Stephen Ridley is musical director of a heart-warming show that runs to 07.03.15 

Paul Marston

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