It would be easy to write numerous superlatives and stop there. Oklahoma! was indeed excellent – the John Wilson Orchestra honed into an ensemble that comes to musicals as an early-music group might approach Monteverdi: with complete understanding and authenticity. The show’s first choreographer, Agnes de Mille, called for dancers who could also act – here they went one further as they could sing, too.
There hasn’t been a West End revival of Oklahoma! since the National Theatre production in 1998 – and that was anything but true to the original. We did have the UK tour in 2015, also directed by Rachel Kavanaugh, and a couple of productions of varied quality before it, but arguably, the public’s love of Oklahoma! stems from the 1956 motion picture.
Oklahoma! (first seen during 1943) was the first musical that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had collaborated on, though their paths had crossed many years before. In all, apart from two songs (‘It’s a Scandal! It’s an Outrage’ and ‘Lonely Room’), the movie follows closely the stage production. So if you are familiar with the film, there won’t be too many surprises, though the sweeping panoramic vistas are, of course, missing.
The story concerns cowboy Curly McLain and his romance with farm-girl Laurey Williams, side-by-side with a second romance between Will Parker (another cowboy) and Ado Annie. There are characters standing in the way of true love – the sullen and possibly unhinged Jud Fry, portrayed with sinister menace by David Seadon-Young, and the Persian peddler Ali Hakim, played with deft comic timing by Marcus Brigstocke. Brigstocke’s New-York-Italian accent confused somewhat the Middle-Eastern heritage of the character; however as a travelling chancer, Brigstocke owned the part. In the end the lovers are together, Fry dies drunk, falling on his knife and Hakim exits $101 lighter in pocket – a small price to pay, he thinks, to escape a shotgun wedding.
Here the dances by Agnes de Mille were used throughout, with Alistair David, who choreographed Kiss Me, Kate at the Proms in 2014, ensuring every step was a nugget of exactitude. The sequence during ‘Kansas City’ allowed Robert Fairchild to show to good-effect his pedigree, herein tap-dancing – he is also Principal Dancer at New York City Ballet.
While each and every cast member was superb – not a note noticeably wrong; not a step out of place; not a line fluffed – special commendation should go to the leading ladies. Scarlett Strallen lifted the role of Laurey to another level. Lizzy Connolly’s Ado Annie was full of character and her ability to throw herself about the stage, at one point on her back, while professing to be a girl who ‘Cain’t Say No’ was a thing of wonder.
From the sparkling Overture to the reprise of ‘Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’’ and ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’, Oklahoma! is an ambitious undertaking for an established theatre, let alone a ‘scratch group’ brought together for two performances on the same day! But, at the Proms, we expect the exceptional, and we certainly got it.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- BBC Proms www.bbc.co.uk/proms