Oklahoma!, The Lowry, Salford Quays, Manchester, 17th-21st March 2015
‘Oh, what a beautiful morning…’ So starts the original feel-good, frontier-conquering musical Oklahoma!, currently showing at the Lowry. Adapted from the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, Oklahoma! is considered a landmark musical, epitomizing the famous duo Rogers and Hammerstein’s innovation to the genre that set the standard for musical theatre as we know it today.
As one of the earliest musicals to showcase the development of ‘book musicals’ musical plays whose songs and dances are integrated into the story rather than functioning as stand-alone pieces when it debuted in 1943 Oklahoma! brought complexity and depth in terms of character and plot to the lighthearted genre of the musical. Set against the creation of the 46th state in 1907, Oklahoma! is a conflict- (and comedy-) ridden tale of romantic hijinks that also casts an idealistic look back over the formative years of the United States, glossing over the uglier side of the ‘Westward expansion’.
As the orchestra started up, smiles spread across our faces (if you are sat in the stalls, be sure to look behind you at he small television screens showing the conductor in the pit!). However, though his performance was wonderful in other respects, Ashley Day, who plays hero Curly, did not have quite the right singing voice to fully carry the deep and joyful expansiveness of the opening song, which somewhat let down the much-anticipated opening scene. The heroine, and object of Curly’s affections Laurey, is played by Charlotte Wakefield. Very relaxed onstage, she perfectly captured Laurey’s feisty yet soft-hearted character, singing beautifully throughout. The most pleasing performances for me were by Lucy May Barker, who was hilarious as the ‘girl who can’t say no’ Ado Annie, if also falling a little short with her singing voice; and the charismatic James O’Connell, who plays her long-suffering cowboy suitor Will Parker, could not be faulted. Several times my friend and I laughed out loud at the ups and downs of their courtship, such as Will’s ill-thought-out compliment in comparing winning her heart to lassoing a cow.
Nic Greenshields was perfectly cast as the troubled and volatile Jud Fry. His imposing physicality and bellowing voice added a weight of dramatic tension to the stage, and he represented a palpable threat to the playful romance between Curly and Laurey. The nightmare sequence was particularly well done, with flashing red lights and devilish cabaret dances terrorizing the sleeping Laurey and providing depth and drama to the otherwise cheerful narrative.
The stars of the show, Belinda Lang who plays Aunt Eller and Gary Wilmot who plays Ali ‘The Peddler’ Hakim, were superb. Both played the characters with great comic timing and consistency, Belinda Lang particularly embodying the physicality of a wise, but grouchy, weathered old woman of the plains. The rest of the supporting cast were also excellent; the men and women alternately forming amped-up ensembles highlighting the ensuing battle of the sexes, as each character dictates the bumpy road to matrimony. The dancing, thanks to Drew McOnie’s excellent choreography, was seamless and breathtaking, the men in particular managing to perform the balletic dances beautifully while retaining their masculinity.
The main theme of Oklahoma! is marriage, which functions as a comic metaphor for the conflict between freedom and domesticity that arose during the Westward expansion. For the cowboys, getting married means becoming a farmer: settling down means setting up fences, no longer pioneering the New World, lassoing cows, seducing new girls. This conflict is drawn with great humour and goodwill, such as through the song at the beginning of Act 2, ‘The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends’, providing small glimpse into the political turmoil that accompanied the times. The running joke, ‘Every daughter has a father with a gun,’ taunts the male characters throughout, but Oklahoma! also serves to challenge gender stereotypes through its strong female characters, some of whom are equally resistant to the idea of settling down, which gives the show an enduringly modern feel.
If you are a lover of this well-known musical, director Rachel Kavanaugh’s version will not disappoint. I challenge anyone not to feel their spirits rise at the finale, ‘OK!’