Oklahoma! ★★★★★

I’ve always thought Oklahoma! to be overrated. The songs are dull, and it reeks of 1940s schmaltz. When it opened in the West End, I thought ‘no way’.

And then I changed my mind. Because it stormed every 2023 award. Just look at this…

So, with gritted teeth, I went to TodayTix and tried for rush tickets. And guess what? I got them, on the very first try. So off I trotted to the Wyndham’s Theatre and… wow!

The darker, grittier approach to the musical may have been off-putting for fans of the original production. But when coupled with Daniel Kluger’s paired down re-orchestration (with just a seven piece band), it gave it a fresh, vibrant, modern buzz.

The minimalist set, designed by Laura Jellinek, used simple yet powerful elements to create a sense of vastness and untamed wilderness. In the second half, there’s a moment when you think a light has fallen from the overhead gantry, until you realise it’s part of the staging and pairs perfectly with the choreography.

The casting was exceptional, with each actor bringing a unique and captivating performance to the stage. Arthur Darvill’s portrayal of Curly McLain showcased his impressive vocal prowess, while also giving the character a darker, more brooding edge. Anoushka Loucas was stunning as Laurey Williams, exhibiting strength and vulnerability in equal measure.

The duet ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’ between Anoushka Louca and Arthur Darvill showcases their undeniable vocal chemistry. Their voices blend beautifully, emphasising the romantic tension between the characters. Louca’s strong, emotive vocals provide a perfect counterpoint to Darvill’s bright tenor, and their heartfelt interpretation of the song creates a memorable and tender moment in the show.

Yet for me, the two supporting actors were the strongest. Georgina Onuorah’s performance of “I Cain’t Say No” as Ado Annie is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the show. Her exceptional vocal prowess, combined with her impeccable comic timing, results in a hilarious and show-stopping rendition of the song. Onuorah’s Ado Annie is endearing and relatable, and she shines throughout the show.

The standout performance came from Patrick Vaill (who originated the role in the 2019 Broadway version), playing Jud Fry. The character was changed in this production to be a vulnerable, depressed, frightened individual rather than the angry and aggressive Jud Fry of traditional productions. Vaill masterfully exposed Jud’s vulnerability, loneliness, and inner turmoil. His rendition of ‘Lonely Room’ is both chilling and heart-wrenching, showcasing his incredible vocal talent and emotional range. Watching a tear leak out his eye during ‘Poor Jud is dead’, with his face projected onto the rear stage wall, was outstanding acting. Why Vaill didn’t receive any awards for this role is beyond me.

There is an unexpected and powerful moment when the theatre goes completely dark (in fact two, but the first time it’s unexpected). It is genuinely dark; there’s no transient light from emergency exit signs or the orchestra pit. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, or the people sitting to my left and right. It creates a palpable sense of unease, amplifying the tension within the story and prompting the audience to confront their own emotions and reactions. The blackout occurs during a pivotal scene, and forces the audience to rely solely on their sense of hearing, as they are enveloped by the sounds of the actors’ voices, the music, and the surrounding environment. The effect is disorienting yet incredibly immersive, challenging the audience to truly engage with the story and the characters’ inner struggles.

The choreography by John Heginbotham was another highlight, seamlessly blending traditional musical theater steps with contemporary dance moves. The innovative ‘Dream Ballet’ sequence, featuring dancer Marie-Astrid Mence, was an unforgettable, visceral experience that left the audience breathless. It stands out as one of the most innovative and captivating moments of the production.

In tackling themes such as toxic masculinity, consent, and the American dream, this fresh production of ‘s Oklahoma! reinvigoraes a classic musical, making it relevant and engaging for a whole new generation of theatergoers.