I love a good musical. And as much as I enjoy seeing new shows, sometimes you can’t beat the golden oldies. My list of all-time favourite musicals features the likes of Les Mis, Miss Saigon, Joseph, Blood Brothers – and now I think I need to add a new one: the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Oklahoma!
Seriously, I have no idea how I could not have seen this show before. It’s funny and charming, with just enough drama and suspense to keep you guessing, and a score made up of one timeless number after another. And it’s proof that you don’t always need to go to the West End to see an amazing production. I watched Oklahoma! on tour at the Orchard Theatre in Dartford, and it was easily as good as any show I’ve seen in London. (And not only because of the dancing cowboys, although I’ll admit that was a particularly enjoyable highlight.)
Oklahoma! is set just after the turn of the 20th century, and tells the story of cowboy Curly and his romance with farm girl Laurey. Obviously, the course of true love doesn’t run smooth, thanks to the pair’s stubborn refusal to admit their feelings, and not helped by the presence of creepy, obsessive Jud Fry. Meanwhile, Curly’s friend Will Parker’s just returned to town to find that his girlfriend, Ado Annie, has dumped him for a smooth-talking Persian peddler called Ali Hakim – who’s about to be forced into marrying her, whether he likes it or not.
Not having seen the show before, I can’t compare Rachel Kavanaugh’s production with any previous incarnations, although I got the feeling there were plenty in the audience who knew the show inside out, and they all seemed to leave the theatre smiling. Personally, I can only comment on this version, which I absolutely loved from start to finish. As Francis O’Connor’s set unfolds to reveal the small rural town, you’re invited in to a community on the brink of change. Although it took a minute or two to tune into the characters’ southern drawl, it wasn’t long before I felt completely at home.
The incredible cast is led by Belinda Lang, who almost steals the show as feisty matriarch Aunt Eller. Almost, but not quite: Ashley Day oozes charm as Curly, and Charlotte Wakefield captures perfectly Laurey’s vulnerability, hidden behind a tough façade. Gary Wilmot and Lucy May Barker give fantastic comic performances as Ali Hakim and Ado Annie, while Nic Greenshields’ shambling Jud Fry is genuinely quite terrifying, particularly once he starts waving a gun about. (Why is there always a gun?)
Oklahoma! is packed full of classic songs and rousing choruses, beautifully performed by the talented company: Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’, I Cain’t Say No! and People Will Say We’re in Love, to name a few. But it’s Drew McOnie’s choreography that really makes the show special. Each number is so colourful and energetic that you can’t help but be swept up in the story. And the dream sequence at the end of Act 1 is stunning; for those few minutes, it’s easy to believe you’ve bought a ticket to a ballet, rather than a musical.
This is the ultimate feel-good show; I defy anyone to see it and not leave the theatre with a skip in your step and a smile on your face. It’s got drama, romance, likeable characters, irresistible song and dance numbers… what’s not to love?
Oklahoma! is at the Orchard Theatre in Dartford until 13th June. To book, visit orchardtheatre.co.uk or call 01322 220000.
Photo credit: Pamela Raith