JOYCE MCMILLAN on OKLAHOMA! at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 25.4.15.
4 stars ****
ABOUT 40 MINUTES into this fine touring production of Oklahoma!, co-produced by Music & Lyrics with the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, I paused to count the world-famous and gloriously melodic songs we had already heard, in the first quarter of this mighty Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, first seen in 1943. From Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’ to Many A New Day, there were eight of them. That’s eight times as many beautiful, memorable songs as you’ll find in the whole length of Les Miserables or Miss Saigon, before the show is even halfway to the interval.
The question is why: what was it, about this writing partnership, at that moment, that unleashed such a river of romance and wit, melody and invention; and the answer has to lie somewhere in the impact of the Second World War, which forms the backdrop to two of the greatest Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, The Sound Of Music and South Pacific. In 1943, the common man – including the ordinary American – was fighting the good fight against fascism everywhere from Italy to the sea of Japan; and so it’s perhaps not surprising that Rodgers & Hammerstein were moved to reach back into America’s democratic founding myth, to the idea of the frontier territory settled by rough-necked cowboys and hard-grafting farmers, that is about to become a state, and one of the great building blocks of 20th century America.
Oklahoma! is not a story without darkness; and like the great Rod Steiger in the 1955 film version, Nic Greenshields makes a powerful job, here, of conjuring up the tortured figure of solitary farmhand Jud Fry, whose fierce erotic obsession with the heroine Laurey inspires the show’s famous dream-ballet, and threatens to derail the story’s mood of sunny romance.
For the most part, though, Rachel Kavanaugh’s production acknowledges that this is a sun-kissed tale about two young couples getting together, and turning towards a hard-working but hopeful future. Charlotte Wakefield and Ashley Day are charming as Laurey and her beau Curley, Lucy May Barker is terrific as the sexually excitable Ado Annie, who just Caint’ Say No. And with a 20-strong cast, some terrific choreography by Drew McOnie, and an outstanding ten-piece live band led by Stephen Ridley, the show is absolute feast for anyone who loves song, dance and drama; delivered with real flair, and, behind it all, a serious quest for hope, love, decency and community – that is, for all the good things the common man hopes he is fighting for, when he marches off to war.
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, final shows today.