In Review

Oklahoma! at the Young Vic: a ‘stunning reinvention’ of a beloved classic

Reinterpreted for a small band, the music has a homespun folksiness that works ‘brilliantly’

A beloved classic of American musical theatre, Oklahoma! was the first show written by that great duo Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Premiered in 1943, it is a “sunsoaked, barnstorming, hokey tale of beefcake cowpokes and wholesome farm girls”, said Sam Marlowe in the i news site. “Except this time, it isn’t.” In Daniel Fish’s “freshly thrilling” production – a Tony-winning smash in New York – those “limitless blue skies have a habit of turning dark”.

Gone is the “hoedown hokiness of previous, prettified versions”, said Nick Curtis in the London Evening Standard. Instead, we have a stripped back aesthetic, dancing that has a “savage, stamping, heedless edge”, and a “rigorously interrogated” score that sounds “utterly fresh”. It’s a “stunning reinvention”.

You’re never likely to see a “more thorough rethinking of Rodgers and Hammerstein”, said Sarah Crompton on What’s On Stage. From the moment you walk into the brightly lit performance space that is shared by the cast and audience – a room “knocked together out of blondewood” with guns racked on the walls – this Oklahoma! destabilises and surprises you.

The production’s “genius” is to “locate the toughness at the heart of this story” about a pioneer community, on the verge of gaining its statehood, in formerly Indian territory. Every character, scene and song are treated as if they are newly minted, “revealing their complexities and contradictions”. It’s a superb reassessment that both asserts the musical’s “greatness and casts it in an entirely fresh light. I think it is a masterpiece.”

The production has a serious edge, and in New York, some critics found it pretentious, yet it is far from heavy going, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph. There is “ample playfulness, comedy, and roof-raising showstoppers too”. Reinterpreted for a small band, the music has a homespun folksiness that works “brilliantly”. And the performances are all superb. “Oklahoma, OK” runs a line in the musical’s title song. But this Oklahoma! is far better than that. It’s “KO, knock-out”.

Young Vic, London SE1. Until 25 June

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