Rodgers and Hammerstein
Music and Lyrics and Royal and Derngate Northampton
The Lyceum, Sheffield

The cast of the national tour of Oklahoma! Credit: Pamela Raith
Ashley Day as Curly and Charlotte Wakefield as Laurey Credit: Pamela Raith

Oklahoma! is the perfect antidote to a cool English summer’s evening, with its evocation of open skies and spaces, sunny mornings and a hard working, trouble-free rural community.

Written in 1943 in the middle of WW2, Oscar Hammerstein is credited with creating a new kind of musical theatre in which plot and character are integrated with the music: in fact, the "musical play" as opposed to the prevailing, often Broadway-influenced "musical comedy" of earlier eras.

Set in the early years of the previous century, the first part of the show is full of sunshine and love interest, joyfully encapsulated in Richard Rogers’s familiar toe-tapping numbers like "Oh, what a Beautiful mornin", "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top", "People Will Say We’re in Love" and other favourites.

Sunshine gives way to shadow when we then encounter the dark character of Jud, a threatening, unsocialised farm hand, who lives in solitary squalor in the murky smokehouse.

This character, whose antecedents might be the psychotic Bradley Headstone from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend or the mentally disabled but physically strong Lennie from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, takes the action in a quite different direction, introduces the potential for tragedy, and strengthens the show, both musically and dramatically.

"Pore Jud is Dead" is a powerfully dissonant and disturbing composition. A bitter rivalry is established between Jud and Curly for the love of Laurey, which leads to another dark and compelling sequence, the "Dream Ballet", more like a nightmare, in which Laurey’s confusion and fear of Jud is exposed.

But nothing can repress the inexhaustible high spirits of the community as they prepare for the hoe down to celebrate the building of a new school and the first half ends with a vigorous and life-affirming company performance of "Oklahoma".

In a cast bursting with talent, Ashley Day as Curly and Charlotte Wakefield as Laurey give strong and energetic performances as the central lovers and Lucy May Barker is a delightful Ado Annie who makes the most of "I Cain’t Say No" in a lively and expressive comic performance.

More comedy is provided by Belinda Lang, a raucous Aunt Ellie, and Gary Wilmot, a charmingly dissolute Ali Hakim.

Nic Greenshields, well over six feet tall, is a commanding and threatening Jud Fry who searches out the anguish in the role and sings with resonance.

Francis O’Connor’s "wooden" set is sturdy and adaptable, providing a convincing background to the internal and external scenes, but also suggesting the vastness of the surrounding countryside and starlit heavens above. Costumes evoke the period well and enable and complement the dance sequences.

Musical director Ben Atkinson and the small band provide a vigorous and highly rhythmic accompaniment throughout, and Drew McOnie’s choreography is dynamic and witty in the set piece numbers, especially exciting in "Oklahoma" and intriguingly dramatic in the "Dream Ballet".

Director Rachel Kavanaugh has co-ordinated this complex travelling show to great effect and provides a thrilling evening’s entertainment. Much credit must go to the full company for the energy and quality of the singing and dancing.

Reviewer: Velda Harris

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