mon 17/06/2024

Proms 34 & 35 review: Oklahoma!, John Wilson Orchestra - music triumphs, words and drama suffer | reviews, news & interviews

Proms 34 & 35 review: Oklahoma!, John Wilson Orchestra - music triumphs, words and drama suffer

Proms 34 & 35 review: Oklahoma!, John Wilson Orchestra - music triumphs, words and drama suffer

Lopsided results in faithful reconstruction of Rodgers and Hammerstein's groundbreaker

The title song as delivered by the company© BBC/Mark Allan

Only one thing could equal the "wow!" factor of seeing and hearing a youngish Hugh Jackman launch into “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’“ at the start of the National Theatre’s 1998 staging of Oklahoma!: John Wilson and his orchestra trilling and swooning their perfectly-balanced way through the Overture at the Proms

a>. Three and a quarter hours later, you might have felt you'd heard some of those tunes at least twice too often, and you might also have questioned, despite excellent work from nearly all concerned, whether it was such a beautiful mornin’ after all. When you get all the original dialogue – and, in the Albert Hall, at least, can’t hear half of it, nor much of the lyrics – there’s a distinctly lopsided quality about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 breakthrough.

Much has been written – including in the programme – about the apple-pie wholesomeness of Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics after those of Rodgers’ more acidic former collaborator Lorenz Hart. But is that such a good thing? They eventually get an upset, but not until we’ve had reams of Hicksville cuteness and we wonder when and if the plot is going to start. Great melodies, sure, but good drama? You rooted, of course, for Nathaniel Hackmann’s walk-the-bow-legged-walk cowman Curly: less of a looker than Jackman, but with the perfect, suave, post-Howard-Keel baritone of a voice. Less so, perhaps, for Scarlet Strallen’s Laurey, who’s crazy for him but won’t admit it: she’s a fine and sympathetic actor, but years of taking the chest voice high in the musicals don’t allow a sweet lyric-soprano top (the two pictured below).Nathaniel Hackmann and Scarlett Strallen in Proms Oklahoma!The subsidiary love triangle quickly starts to pall, as Marcus Brigstocke, unrecognisable without his trademark specs, rasps his way through pedlar Ali Hakim’s dialogue; there’s way too much business between him, Lizzy Connolly’s Ado Annie – inevitably a cliché, but nicely and clearly done – and Robert Fairchild’s Will Parker. But boy, can that Fairchild dance: fouettés and all. You’re not surprised when you read in the programme that he was classically trained and a lead in New York City Ballet.

The first dance sequence, for “Kansas City”, is a winner as a result (pictured below), but choreographer Alastair David doesn’t go much beyond the stock thereafter, despite homages to the original work by Agnes de Mille. That was a drawback when you’ve got a climactic quarter-of-an-hour dream sequence at the end of the first act (good fight scene, though). Musically, it’s mostly reprises, with one startling dissonant transformation of Curly’s niceness towards the end.Scene from Proms Oklahoma!Nor does Rachel Kavanaugh’s full staging, with minimal but telling props, go beyond what you might have expected in 1943 (could you take Oklahoma! out of its setting? Probably not, though I’d like to see a kids’ version set in a playground). There is, at least, an attempt to make the odd man out, Jud Fry, rival for Laurey’s affections, believably warped by people’s indifference or hatred towards him. Sure, he turns out psychopathic, but I don’t suppose I was the only one deeply uneasy about Curly’s suggestion in his first encounter with him that he might hang himself and get people sorrier for him in death then they were in life. This is where Rodgers’ harmonies – including a queasy upward chromatic shift – and Robert Russell Bennett's orchestrations take an interesting turn for “Jud Fry is Dead”, nasty bully-boy taunting here when the object isn't an obvious thug.

Jud’s “Lonely Room” with its clashing semitones in the clarinets and David Seadon-Young vocally yearning in a not unsympathetic way sets up potential for the character to be further developed (I wonder if Britten, with his focus on the outsider, knew Oklahoma!). Unfortunately it isn’t, not musically at least, and the Act Two structure is uncomfortable. “The Farmer and the Cowman” is a lively divertissment at the start, very well done here, but you can’t feel relaxed about the title song knowing that the denouement is long overdue. Jud dies – no spoiler there – and after a dodgy acquittal of Curly for his accidental knifing of his opponent, the married couple can depart for their honeymoon in the surrey with the fringe on top.John WilsonWell, it’s nobody’s fault at the Proms if that feels weird in the wrong sort of way, though you might have wished the usual shears to hand in the dialogue – odd that musical theatre veers in the opposite direction with spoken dialogue to the operatic world, where the inclination is to cut ruthlessly – rather than Wilson’s insistence on the full recreation of the original show (the conductor pictured above). He kept his hand-picked players on their toes, with a bit of extra showmanship for the crowds well earned. Glossy divided strings sang their hearts out with vintage vibrato and portamento; sassy work from the brass and the piquant twang of guitar and banjo added to the pleasure.

In short, everyone acted, sang, played and danced their cotton socks off, and the pass-remarkable, singalong audience members around me loved every minute, though I suspect that folk watching live on TV or listening on the radio heard a lot more of the words than we did. I'd still like to see Oklahoma! done chamber-style, following the runaway successes of the Arcola Carousel and the Young Vic's Annie Get Your Gun. Amplification was certainly better than in last year’s disastrously miked Fiddler on the Roof, at least allowing the timbre of the voices to emerge, but it was still a bit of a blur. One very good reason for having surtitles even when the text is nominally Oklahoma English. Unfortunately the successful experiment for Khovanshchina was a one-off; the Proms won’t be using them again this season. Write to the BBC if you think that’s a cop-out.

There is, at least, an attempt to make the odd man out believably warped by people’s indifference or hatred towards him


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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For those of us housebound and missing previous access to quality music theatre this was a real treat. John Wilson never disappoints

My husband and I were amazed at the stage with the dancers and singers with limited floor space . None of the players fell short of beautiful timing, singing and dancing we all know the musical but none of it fell short of expectations . Curley and the lead singers were great and John Wilson well I for one take my hat off to him and his orchestra for bringing the show alive. He never fails and ooking forward to next years musicals which he does so brilliantly.

Critics are professional moaners. Nothing is ever perfect in life so why pick holes in something that you could never even attempt to do yourself. I watched it on the TV and while there were one or two sound problems I could here all the words. The accoustic in the RAH was the problem, not the performers. I seem to remember another know-it-all critic complaining about Hugh Jackman's singng in the film of Les Miserables, that his voice wasn't operatic enough. Err, it's not an opera and neither is Oaklahoma so if Ms Strallen pulled her chest voice too high, that is because it is the normal technique for musical theatre.

I think this is an excellent, thoughtful review.

I watched on TV and thought it was brilliant. Very impressed. I could hear every word, diction teriffic. Well done.

Well I thought it was brilliant really enjoyed it. Looking forward to watching it again on catch up.

The problem with the Urtext is that it can be terribly tedious. Better to just wallow in the glorious tunes and leave the extraneous stuff to the anoraks :-)

I can rarely concentrate on anything for more than an hour these days but I watched this musical treat exhilarated from beginning to end without flinching. The tone of this criticism is disappointing. I just do not know what Mr Nice was expecting. The sheer vibrancy and sustained joyful enthusiasm of the cast seems to have escaped him. I agree with all of the above comments, so will limit myself to making one observation of a point that Mr Nice seems tom have overlooked. Musicals in old times suffered from the problem of finding actors who could sing/dance and mostly leading roles were given to singers. Tonight we were blessed with having a cast who could not only sing, but act and dance extremely well. How often have we sat through a painful performance of an opera with gifted singers making little effort to act. Who has not seen the performance of a young Pavarotti and his beloved princess in Aida, where none of the cast made the slightest effort to "act", The whole performance was painful to watch. It was like being in a radio studio. I am afraid that we have been spoilt by the excellence of today's performers and take it for granted. Mr Nice most certainly does, as he knit picks.

Thanks for a range of comments. I fear several have either missed most of my points about the energy of the cast, and some have repeated what I've written while thinking I stated the opposite. I'm bound to report on the event from where I experienced it, and that was slightly to the side where the words were often indistinct to both myself, my companion and several others I spoke to.

My other beef was with the 'Urtext', and a commenter above echoes me on that. Way too much dialogue and situations - the 'bartered bride' auction stuff at the 'do', for instance - which others seem to have found funnier than I did.

I would have hoped that an attempt to address the full show that is Oklahoma! as well as the performance might have encouraged more debate about the nature of the work, the oddities and flaws of which took me by surprise (I'm so fond of the film, and I enjoyed the National Theatre production unreservedly). But it seems as if I'm being taken to task for undervaluing the performers, which isn't the case. And the point about the chest voice taken high was that the role of Laurey absolutely doesn't require this, nor did Ms Strallen try it. The alternative felt uncomfortable to me.

Beware of fandom?

I was at the RAH (for Prom 35) rather than watched on TV, and I agree with David Nice's review - poor sound and excessive unnecessary dialogue. A missed opportunity to really expand the orchestra too (from the standard score), which John Wilson so magnificently achieved with his MGM musicals prom. This could and should have been better, particularly with the indulgence of 2 prom performances.

Watched it on iPlayer last night. Absolutely fabulous took both my husband's and my breath away... Will a dvd follow, hope so can't wait to buy it . the

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