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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Oklahoma!, Wyndham's Theatre

Less a revival than a dark and unsettling reimagining of the well-loved Western-themed musical, Daniel Fish’s audacious deconstruction of "Oklahoma!" at the Wyndham Theatre is captivating, offbeat and pulsing with sexual tension.

The new production is not your grandparents’ version of the lush, ultra-classic 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about the great future of America. Or your parents’ version. Or perhaps, your version. But it’s extraordinary in every sense of the word.

It’s wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful. It’s radical while remaining true to the text of the original and forcing us to see or hear it anew.

It’s dark - sometimes literally as blackouts and floods of dark colours are not uncommon. It’s also very funny, injecting the romantic comedy components with unending sexual tension expressing itself in insults.

The musical, which takes place in 1906 Oklahoma, as the territory is on the verge of statehood and its (supposedly) glorious American future of limitless possibility, is set by director Daniel Fish and scenic designer Laura Jellinek in a purely theatrical, timeless but contemporary-ish space, something like a bright beer hall.

The cast members hang around the picnic tables even when they’re not in the scenes, drinking Bud Light, occasionally shucking corn, often stomping to the beat of the songs to energize the festivities.

Arthur Darvill’s cocksure Curly and Anoushka Lucas’s smouldering Laurey embark on an antagonistic, erotically charged courtship ritual, in which the hapless incel Jud is collateral. Meanwhile, Georgina Onuorah as the heedlessly libidinous Ado Annie ignites fires in the loins of simple-minded Will Parker (James Patrick Davis) and Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Stavros Demetraki). Liza Sadovy as matriarch Aunt Eller has a wry, flirtatious manner, too.

Curly and Jud’s attempts to woo Laurey are staged in complete darkness and the standoff between the two men in intimately filmed close-up. The atmosphere between the three is charged: it can go any which way, you feel. The post-interval ballet routine, expressing Laurey’s choice about her future, is sinuously reimagined for a lithe dancer (Marie-Astrid Mence) in a shimmery T-shirt and little else.

Many of the scenes are played with an emotional distance, with the actors seeming to just say the lines without much inflection, and yet still capturing their characters. Interestingly, it’s both more artificial and more authentic simultaneously.

The full personalities of the characters and performers emerge more forcefully when they sing. The songs sound completely different than prior takes but come across brilliantly.

A traditional-radical production would turn the tunes into contemporary country, but here the pedal string guitar and the rest of the seven-member onstage band invest “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” and “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and the rest of one of best scores in history with a compellingly wobbly, eerie twang.

The score sounds so revitalised it might’ve been written yesterday.

The second act explodes all the Americana myths underneath the story even further, while clearly revealing that this undercurrent was there all along. That’s what’s shocking.

It starts by substituting the “Dream Ballet” with a solo modern dance, performed by Gabrielle Hamilton, from the original Broadway cast. It’s beautiful and expressive, alternating between flowing movement and gyrating pain that instantly brings to mind someone being shot.

The ending of this “Oklahoma!” manages to be both shattering and enlightening, turning what used to be a happy ending into a view of how our criminal justice system favours the powerful.

The last number, a reprise of the title song, feels as if everyone is singing the song of optimism so hard because they’re trying to purge their underlying trauma. In this version, it’s clear that despite the lyric saying so, Oklahoma is not OK.

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