The new production of Oklahoma! being staged at Royal & Derngate in Northampton this week is a warm, feelgood experience, a tale of love and neighbourliness in the American mid-west, but it’s not all wholesome and cheery.
From the first moment that Ashley Day steps out as Curly singing Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’ with ease and charm, the melodic and lyrical power of Rodger and Hammerstein’s classic score takes over. Great songs, including The Surrey With the Fringe on Top and People Will Say We’re in Love and ensemble dance routines around the climbing frame of a set mean there is no let-up in the entertainment for anyone, like me, who loves a classic old-style musical.
Oklahoma! tells the story of pioneering folk and Curly’s pursuit of his sweetheart, the feisty Laurey, played by Charlotte Wakefield. Despite Laurey’s constant insults and rebuffs, everyone knows they are meant to be together. Their romance unfolds under the sympathetic eyes of Aunt Eller played by Belinda Lang, who seems to have the knack of bringing a great spark of humour and good humour to the very bones of a character.
But the course of love can never run smooth and the story is saved from over sweetness by a thread of darkness in the form of the troubled hired hand Jud Fry who has also got his eye on Laurey.
The show goes through a considerable gear change when our hero heads out to see his rival in his hole of a home, the walls papered with showgirls and his supply of even more secret postcards stashed away. Here, Curly seems to be encouraging Jud to hang himself and they sing the unsettling Pore Jud Is Daid in which Curly tries to persuade Jud that only at his funeral would people come to appreciate him. Unhappy, frustrated Jud is played with menace by Nic Greenshields.
Light relief comes from the ever-suggestible Ado Annie Cornes, played by Lucy May Barker, who gives a lively rendition of I Cain’t Say No! and Annie’s suitors the peddler Ali Hakim played by Gary Wilmot and Will Parker played by James O’Connell.
It is played out on a set that represents all at once the wide open expansive landscape of Oklahoma and the small domestic spaces on the farm, while the golden lighting and dramatic sillhouettes give the production a distinctive atmosphere.
Oklahoma! is a great show and the cast of highly accomplished singers and dancers play it with warmth. What a beautiful evenin’.