Musicals don’t come much better than this

Charoltte Wakefield and Ashley Day in Oklahoma. Picture by Pamela Raith SUS-150904-084157001
Charoltte Wakefield and Ashley Day in Oklahoma. Picture by Pamela Raith SUS-150904-084157001

Seventy years old, and still fresh and sparkling. Oklahoma! is at the Congress this week, and oh, what a beautiful show, writes Kevin Anderson.

A musical historian could write a thesis about it – some of them have done – but in truth, Oklahoma! fully deserves the term ground-breaking.

Rodgers and Hammerstein, in their first ever collaboration, were taking their professional reputations in their hands, and they took risks.

A dark anti-hero clouding the love story, a “dream ballet” that added a breath-taking new dimension. Hints of racial friction. And even a break from musical theatre tradition, by dispensing with a massive opening number.

But how do you approach yet another revival? Rachel Kavanaugh’s direction is respectful but not reverential. There is so much that you would never play with, and she doesn’t: the setting is authentic, the central romance is lovely and the protagonists adorable.

The songs tumble gloriously one after another, and there is lots of witty dialogue.

But Kavanaugh has plenty to add. From Nic Greenfields’ outstanding Jud Fry she draws a terrifying portrait of brooding, almost psychopathic jealousy.

From an exuberant, multi-talented ensemble she coaxes an irresistible life-affirming energy. And in a supposedly male-dominated Midwest community, her female characters are ultimately just as artful and assertive.

Without a big opening chorus, the show dawns, literally, with a beautiful pin-sharp sunrise, and a lone lyrical voice from across the cornfields. Ashley Day’s Curly has a golden voice and a young charm that you just know will capture Laurey – Charlotte Wakefield with a delightful mix of naïve and capricious. Together, the pair are just magical.

The first act does unfold quite slowly, but there is so much to enjoy that nobody minds. Lucy May Barker is the dizziest Ado Annie with Gary Wilmot’s Ali Hakim a wily foil, and Belinda Lang is the sharp-witted but warm-hearted Aunt Eller. And then the dancers just flood the stage with the finest Dream Ballet you will ever see – Drew McOnie’s fabulous choreography is all swirls, lifts and dazzling movement.

Where many productions call on “Dream dancers”, Wakefield and Day dance their own parts with consummate skill.

The second-half set evokes an Amish barn-raising, but heck, the infamous hamper auction is all in aid of a new schoolroom, so why not?

Under the assured baton of Stephen Ridley the band – yes, an actual band, a rarity these days – complements without ever overpowering.

You always knew the guys would get their gals, and you will leave the theatre bathed in that bright golden haze....

Timeless and matchless. Musicals don’t come better than this.