Oklahoma @ The Mayflower, Southampton
Ah Oklahoma, another in that list of musicals who have been produced and cast so perfectly in the past (in this case the wonderful National Theatre production that gave Hugh Jackman his big break) that you begin to wonder why anyone would dare attempt it again! But clearly Music & Lyrics – the collaborative effort of a number of the UK’s finest regional receiving theatres – are braver souls than I!
The real question is whether their bravery pays off? Well, yes… and no! This is a perfectly entertaining production with a few impressive performances but on the whole it fails to scale the heights or the depths of emotion that we know are there. I can’t be entirely sure but I suspect this is largely because director Rachel Kavanaugh has decided to paint in very broad strokes.
Ashley Day makes for a likeable enough Curly but is just a little too polished to be entirely believable, both in his acting and his singing. Charlotte Wakefield fare better as Laurie, she has a little more emotion to mine, especially in Act Two but she also seems more in tune with her character and her vocals, while not as polished as Day’s, fit the setting and the mood perfectly.
The two standout performances come at either end of the spectrum. Gary Wilmot gives exactly the performance you might expect as Ali Hakim, mining the humour of the script and adding his own little flourishes. He’s not doing anything new but he’s doing it well and with utter conviction! The darkness in the story comes from Jud Fry, the malcontent farm hand who is normally portrayed as a brutish villain. Nic Greenshields, who impressed last year in Chichester’s Guys & Dolls, has formed a more rounded character for his Jud. There are shades of Lennie in Of Mice and Men as we realise this Jud is perhaps not in full control of himself and doesn’t understand the fearsome image he presents.
Elsewhere Lucy May Barker shows promise and there are moments when her Ado Annie is truly wonderful, especially during her songs, but at other times it seems as if she has been given no direction. The same can be said of James O’Connell’s Will Parker, a role that seems strangely diminished in this production. Belinda Lang turns Aunt Eller, who is often the heart of the show, into a cranky caricature without even a hint of subtlety and suffers even more than most of her cast-mates from a bizarre and ever-changing accent – though most of the cast could have done with a dialect coach to provide some degree of consistency.
Overall though, for all its flaws this is still a wonderful piece of musical theatre and the gusto with which the ensemble attack the company numbers is addictive, indeed an elderly lady behind me sings along with the whole of the second act in a piercing soprano that can’t quite decide which key to use! If you head along you’ll almost certainly have an enjoyable night and I defy you not to be humming a tune or two the next day!