R&H Production Captures Spirit of Vintage Small Town America

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rodgers & Hammerstein, Oklahoma!: A production by ‘Music & Lyrics Limited and Royal & Derngate Northampton’, Lyric Theatre, The Lowry, Salford,. 18.3.2015 (MC)

Ashley Day as Curly and Nic Greenshields as Jud Fry in the National tour of Oklahoma! © Pamela Raith
Ashley Day as Curly and Nic Greenshields as Jud Fry in the National tour of Oklahoma! © Pamela Raith

Belinda Lang: Aunt Eller
Gary Wilmot: Ali Hakim
Ashley Day: Curley
Charlotte Wakefield: Laurey
Barnaby Thompson: Ike Skidmore
Robbie Boyle: Fred
Simon Anthony: Slim
James O’Connell: Will Parker
Nic Greenshields: Jud Fry
Lucy May Barker: Ado Annie Carnes
Paul Grunert: Andrew Carnes
Kara Lane: Gertie Cummins

Director: Rachel Kavanaugh
Set & Costume Designer: Francis O’Connor
Lighting Designer: Tim Mitchell
Choreographer: Drew McOnie
Sound Designer: Ben Harrison
Musical Director: Stephen Ridley

Over the years many hundreds of musicals have fallen by the wayside with only a surprisingly small number gaining evergreen status. First staged on Broadway in 1943 Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Purlitzer Prize-winning musical Oklahoma!’, box office success, which ran for some 2,200 performances, is certainly a musical with an enduring popularity.

Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh this splendid new production at Salford Lowry by ‘Music & Lyrics Limited and Royal & Derngate Northampton’ had all the necessary youthful freshness and feel-good appeal to linger long in the memory. Designer Francis O’Connor’s clever yet uncomplicated set gave an engaging feel of Okahoma State cowboy country from around 1906. The bare timber look of the woodsman’s cabin and barn was perfect to depict the settlement with a central area serving as a clearing against the backdrop of a mountain side and the ever changing sky colour. All the stage props, principally the water pumping windmill, rocking chair, laundry wringer and pony trap, added to the homestead environment. With responsibility also for the costumes O’Connor again excelled providing traditional lusty designs such as check-shirts, waistcoats, leather chaps, gun holster belts and Stetsons for the men and floral or dotted patterned wide long skirts and bodices, ankle boots and mainly straw bonnets for the women. Coming thick and fast, it’s the memorable melodies of the songs that make Oklahoma!

Despite a little untidiness to start with, which was completely understandable, the standard of performance was pleasingly consistent throughout given that so-called light music can be extremely challenging to sing well. Cowboy Curley played by Ashley Day with his smouldering good looks was straight in with the uplifting Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’ shortly followed by equally memorable The Surrey With the Fringe on Top (the Surrey being the horse drawn rig with its fringed canopy). Clearly highly assured Day made a winning male lead singing with a bright and attractive fluid tone, with reasonable diction, communicating an engaging stage personality and always singing with a smile. Female lead Charlotte Wakefield as Laurey with her long light brown hair under a stiff leather Stetson made a grand job of swerving Curly’s advances, initially playing the inevitable ‘hard to get’. Wakefield has a decent voice used effectively but she was especially talented at getting angry with Curly and flouncing off into the cabin. Audience favourite Gary Wilmot played Ali Hakim the self proclaimed Persian salesman, who is really a peddler, nattily attired in a bold green/brown check suit and brown bowler. Pushing a cart named Ali’s Emporium, Wilmot was hardly required to sing at all but delivered his amusing lines with pleasant confidence. Belinda Lang as Aunt Eller made me smile with her slow, rather screechy drawl giving a delightful performance throughout.

Stealing the show was the talented Lucy May Barker as Ado Annie displaying her larger-than-life fun personality and an even larger heart. Her strong, expressive vocal, crystal clear diction with a splendid acting and dancing ability should virtually guarantee her more substantial roles. Playing opposite Ado Annie was James O’Connell as Will Parker, a type of kind hearted rogue character. I admired Will’s romantic duet with Ado Annie All Er Nothin’ wanting to know her intention to his marriage proposal and their subsequent dance routine. Worthy of special praise was the performance of Nic Greenshields as the moody and dangerous Jud Fry,  tall and muscular, wearing blue denim bib and brace. Living alone in a grimy wood cabin with its glamour pictures pinned to the inside walls Jud bawls he wants a real woman not pictures. Greenshields revealed an excellent baritone voice with a dark tone and superb projection. I’m sure the whole audience felt sorry for the lovesick Jud, thwarted in his attempt to win Laurey’s affections, who comes to a sticky end falling on his own knife. Praise is due to choreographer Drew McOnie for a number of stirring and inventive dance sequences.
Kavanaugh’s new production of Oklahoma! certainly captured the spirit of the small town American settler providing colourful and generous entertainment in spades.

Michael Cookson