Less isn’t more in this pared-down “Oklahoma!”

I guess we all have favourite plays, operas, movies where “Meddle with that at your peril” is top of our mind. Some years ago there was a staging of “High Society” at the Old Vic which was so gruesome that lovers of the movie (me) fled at the interval to rush home to play the DVD to remind ourselves how great it was. I wouldn’t put “Oklahoma!” in Daniel Fish’s production quite in that category, I stayed to the end.

Bare with me as I explain why Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical means a lot to me. When I was a child we only had two Long Playing records at home one of which was the Broadway cast recording of “Oklahoma”. Then in 1955 I saw the film and was hooked. In accessing R&H for the first time I sought out their other works and became a Rodgers and Hammerstein groupie, quite young. It’s a cliché to say it but “Oklahoma!” transformed musical theatre, it also transformed me.

The best stage performance I saw was that by the National Theatre in 1998, later filmed. But a concert-style staging at the BBC Proms in 2017 under John Wilson’s musical direction was vibrant despite the limited stage room in the Albert Hall (above).

And it’s the staging that for me most disappoints about the Daniel Fish directed production at Wyndham’s Theatre. The top picture shows the “set” just before the show starts. A bare stage with a few wooden tables and chairs. That memorable opening with Curly singing “Oh, what a Beautiful Mornin’ has him not starting offstage or riding in on his horse, as in the movie, but sitting with the rest of the cast as if he’s in a casual dress audition. This set and staging stays like this throughout the first Act. There is no attempt to in part tell the story with set or scenery.

Musical theatre has certainly become more full of elaborate sets and special effects since “Oklahoma!” was first seen in 1943 and in some respects this understated and under-staged production may be seen as an attempt to get back to the original. But actually it doesn’t do that. The downsizing applies to the band as well. Instead of anything like a full orchestra (as, appropriately, at the Prom) we have an eight piece string instrument ensemble. They were very good but it was a long way from the customary Big musical theatre sound.

The acting and singing was exemplary. Anoushka Lucas as Laurey and Arthur Darvill as Curly were very good and overall if you were listening to a radio broadcast you’d be impressed. The script of Oscar Hammerstein’s book is followed to the letter (though Jud’s final moments come differently as if there is some concern about exculpating knife crime in today’s youth machete-wielding gang times).

Gary Naylor has written a tough but fair review here which adds to my misgivings about this production. If you shut your eyes you can imagine the bright golden haze on the meadow. But if you’re paying £100 or more for good seats you want your eyes to be wide open and to see a bit of spectacle.

One thought on “Less isn’t more in this pared-down “Oklahoma!”

  1. £100 Paddy Blimey! Sadly I haven’t set foot in a theatre since seeing Boys in the Band and Hair in the sixties. I agree about dumbing down. It’s happening everywhere. Standards of all most everything have been reduced. I feel sad for the young who didn’t experience the joys and freedoms we did. A young person going to your production of Oklahoma today would believe that’s all there was.
    Your blog may help to persuade them to look further. We can only hope.


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