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Review of Oklahoma! at The Young Vic - Reinvention ruins original for uninitiated

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

Rated 🍯🍯

Brightly lit room with a few long tables and benches, an enclosure for the orchestra with musical instruments. Tables have a cooking pot on them, as well as a few cans of beer.
The set of Oklahoma! the musical at The Young Vic. Picture from upper gallery.

It is impossible to enjoy the Young Vic’s revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Oklahoma! if one has not been exposed to a more original, properly staged version of the musical before.

It is the kind of show you watch after you’ve seen an original full version and fallen in love with it, because the current production strips away so many critical elements from the script - the time, the place, the very air - and asks you to derive your enjoyment purely from the musical score (which, to be fair, is performed outstandingly but does not substitute for a fuller, richer storytelling, and so it just isn’t enough if you, like the bee, don’t have a pre-existing appreciation for the story).

The Young Vic’s production of Oklahoma! does nothing to transport you to the time and place where the story is set…

…leaving you to go there yourself using memory as you listen to the lines and songs. If you don’t have memory to guide you, then you are left staring at a stage as brightly lit as a school gym room, wondering what to make of the modernised rendition of Laurey - rustic and traditional in her thinking and speaking, but modern in the way she dresses and carries herself, and ultimately neither fully belonging to 1906 or 2022.

This is not to fault the actors in the slightest. Arthur Darvill opens with an absolutely magical rendition of “Oh, what a beautiful morning” as Curly, Anoushka Lucas absolutely delights with her voice when she does “People will say we’re in love” as Laurey, and Marisha Wallace electrifies the entire theatre with her absolutely commanding presence on stage. But the music isn’t enough to enable a newbie audience member like the bee to be taken to a beautiful farm in 1906 Oklahoma, to the values and culture that define the community, and to the nuanced details of character that require a little more gesticulation, mannerism, and plain moving-about to be picked up.

Nevertheless, the bee enjoyed the scene about the auction of Laurey’s lunch hamper, which quickly escalates into what looks like an auction of Laurey herself.

The scene gives us a sneak peak into how this community looks at power, prestige and virtue. (Spoilers) Laurey’s suitors go to the extent of bidding all they own, demonstrating their willingness to make sacrifices for the woman they love, thereby gaining a recognition of their worthiness to court Laurey and gaining social sanction for their eventual union, should it happen. At first blush the bee wondered why the men were creating a fuss about a mere lunch hamper, and rolled its eyes at this seemingly idiotic and pointless clash of male egos. But it only takes a moment of reflection to realise that to these men, losing the auction would have meant losing a lot more than the lunch hamper; it would have meant losing a sort of social insurance - a community safety net, if you will. The importance of having society’s blessing becomes strikingly evident in the trial scene where the entire community comes together to protect one of their own.

The blackout scene was the most exciting part of the musical.

(Spoiler) The song Poor Jud is Daid, in which Curly tries tongue-in-cheek to persuade a sinister and mysterious Jud to commit suicide, happens in a blackout scene. It’s pitch black to the point that you can feel the blackness pressing against your eyes. From other reviews of the show, it seems this scene had a polarising effect - people either loved it or hated it. The bee is in the lover category: the scene worked beautifully for the bee. It had a dramatic tension and intensity that the bee absolutely loved; and it’s a real pity that such an effect was missing from the remainder of the show.

But Laurey was…confusing.

Laurey was a mystery to the bee, and not in a good way, but the dumbfounding way in which a character is portrayed as neither fully original nor fully reimagined but an awkward blend of the two. The Young Vic’s Laurey gives off the aura of a sensual, mysterious woman, intelligent and deep, bold and fearless. So it felt rather odd when she revealed herself to be an empty-headed, indecisive and immature girl who fell for Heckham’s Egyptian decision-making elixir, or when she expressed her fear towards Jud. Since watching the Young Vic production the bee also watched the Broadway version, and found the version of Laurey in that rendition to be a lot more aligned with the true character than the one written in the current production.

Also, why is the musical called Oklahoma?

The bee could not figure out the significance of Oklahoma the state. The formation of the state, touted to be one of the key themes of the story, feels tangential at best to the the developments in the story, which could have taken place in any other rustic Southern town and felt exactly the same. To be sure, it is conceivable that the new state identity could inspire a solidarity in the community and help them identify with one another in a new way, as well as help them unite in protecting their own and revolting against an outsider, but it is hard to tell from the current production that the way the community defends Curly against Jud is an artefact of the formation of the state and not of a pre-existing tightness that is typical of any small town.

In all, the version of Oklahoma! staged at The Young Vic was one of the more vexing pieces of theatre the bee has sat through. To be fair, the bee had the worst seats in the house (unreserved gallery up in the gods), although with the way the stage was laid out (no elevation, “stage” at the centre of the room with audience surrounding it from three sides), the bee thought nobody got a good seat; every audience member had to endure a sideways view of the stage.

Two stars.

Watched 21 May 2022 at The Young Vic.

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1 Comment

Jul 15, 2022

Thanks for this. Interesting take on how an uninitiated spectator might take to the play.

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