Rodgers & Hammerstein
UK Productions
Opera House, Manchester, and touring

Oklahoma! publicity image

Billboards outside the Manchester Opera House trumpet Oklahoma! and showcase Marti Webb and Mark Evans, the actor playing Curly the cowboy. While Webb's pedigree needs no explanation, Evans is best known as a runner-up in the programme Your Country Needs You, Andrew Lloyd Webber's search for a singer to represent Britain in the Eurovision song contest.

Having been cajoled, charmed and captivated by Evans' performance in the Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic musical play, this reviewer was left wondering whether Britain would have escaped its annual ignominy of Eurovision defeat if Evans had won the BBC competition.

In a production played to an appreciative audience with an impressive cast of singers and dancers, Evans stood out from the start with his finessed execution of Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'. Happily, his rich rendering of the celebrated song was followed by a cheerfully bouncy version of The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, belted out by Laurey, played effortlessly by Gemma Sutton, and the inimitable Webb as Aunt Eller.

Against an unmistakable backdrop of cornfields and a rocking chair perched on the stoop, Oklahoma! fizzed into action. Fresh-faced young women swished petticoats as male suitors tucked thumbs into waistcoats and danced across the stage. So far, so good.

On the face of it, it's pretty difficult to ruin this 67-year-old show. The score dares the most curmudgeonly of theatregoers to prevent their toes from tapping and the lyrics are so catchy they should come with a health warning. Oklahoma! is littered with accolades, including two Academy Awards for the 1955 film to a special Tony Award in 1993. It has been translated into a dozen languages and, in the US and Canada alone, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Theatre Library licences an average of 600 productions each year.

The Manchester Opera House, counterpart to its slightly shabby sibling the Palace Theatre up the road, may seem a long way from the mid-West, but prior to the show's West End premiere in 1947, the Opera House staged a pre-London run in April 1947. It opened a day late after the ship carrying the cast, scenery and costumes ran aground on a sandbank off Southampton.

No such obstacles hindered the opening night of the 2010 Manchester production. While the sets were reminiscent of a Blue Peter project and some of the ensemble dancing in the first act seemed a bit lacklustre, the music compensated for the shortcomings. Dialogue delivered too quickly was overlooked once the cast burst into song, serving up such memorable numbers as It's a Scandal, It's an Outrage and the haunting People Will Say We're in Love. And credit to Michelle Crook who, as the impressionable Ado Annie, made the audience believe that she really was a girl who "cain't say no".

Joseph Pitcher, playing Will Parker, did a decent job of portraying the naive yet likeable lover of Annie, and Pete Gallagher as Jud Fry, the sinister farm hand who has his sights set on Laurey, gave a formidable performance, not least because his stature and paddle-like hands imbued a sense of fear in Laurey and the audience alike.

It's a shame there weren't more numbers for Webb, admired by musical theatre lovers for her roles in Tell Me on a Sunday, Blood Brothers, Song and Dance and the title role in Evita. And a pity that some scenes felt like an over-egged panto where the desire to shout "he's behind you" was palpable. But this wasn't a production that dwelled on hidden meanings. Yes, peeling back the layers of subtext revealed a strong suggestion that bidding for women's lunch boxes at auction and declaring "ownership" of the fairer sex was a symbol for turn-of-the-century battles over land and livelihood. In fact the big finish, the rousing Oklahoma!, invoked the line "We know we belong to the land".

But this is a subject for later reflection. Enough for one night that Curly and Laurey left for their honeymoon in the surrey with the fringe on top.

Velda Harris reviewed this production in Sheffield

Reviewer: Helen Nugent

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