Oklahoma! at the Young Vic
It’s not often that critics see real risks being taken on big productions, but when Daniel Fish’s gritty reimagining of Oklahoma! opened at Broadway’s Circle in the Square in April 2019, audiences walked out of the theatre. Those who stayed were allegedly in tears. The production won two Tony awards and continues to run on Broadway and tour the US. Sine 2019, it has garnered a dedicated fanbase who dub it “Sexy Oklahoma!” for its overt raciness.
Fish’s revival sets out to capture the effect of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original production, which revolutionised American musical theatre in 1943 by opening with a lone farmer singing alone on a big stage. The revival strips the show back even more – the cast is tiny, the big ballet number now a deliciously dark contemporary solo and, without giving too much away, the production is risky with a capital “R”. For anyone unfamiliar with the musical, it is a very simple story about a love triangle and the conflict between farmers and cowmen. In Fish’s version, sexual tension cuts through the entire show, and stompin’ boots and slappin’ leather cowboy pants serve to enhance the show’s sensuous appeal. It is probably the most openly polyamorous piece of musical theatre on the stage.
Following such an iconic revival is not easy, and it will be interesting to see how UK audiences will respond. Hands-down, the best performance comes from Marisha Wallace’s powerhouse of an Ado Annie, with impeccable comic timing, beautifully subtle acting, rhythmic movement and incredible vocals greeted with cheers from the whole audience. Other standout portrayals come from Liza Sadovy, as the tough but sensual aunt Eller, and Patrick Vaill, who reprises his Broadway role as the ostracised, suicidal Jud Fry.
But the real highlight comes from the lighting, sound and props teams. Without revealing too much, the lighting breaks artistic boundaries and conventions in ways that leave the audience reeling from the shock. The show is an emotional rollercoaster of design and execution, and the entire lighting team, from designers to technicians, should applaud themselves for a truly innovative performance. Bold use of props creates some crazy theatrical moments, and the audience are splattered with (faux) beer, corn and sudden cowboy boots that fall from the sky. The second act is underscored by a virtuosic performance from the steel pedal guitar soloist and fun use of microphones.
This may not be the best production in the world – in general it would do well to pick up the pace a little and Marisha Wallace is on a different plane to the rest of the cast – but it is incredibly exciting to see this level of risk-taking and experimentation in a production of this scale. Here’s hoping that the British cast will keep playing, exploring and making bold choices.
Photos: Marc Brenner
Oklahoma! is at the Young Vic from 27th April until 25th June 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch a trailer for the production here: