The production that has toured America now comes to London.
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s creations are robust enough that they can be presented and interpreted in a variety of ways. For example, Grange Park Opera’s 2018 production boasted many operatic credentials in terms of orchestra size and some of the voices that were employed. Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein’s production at the Young Vic, which appeared at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn four years ago before touring the US, could not feel more different as it is staged virtually in the round and pared down to make it feel both dark and vital.
Interestingly, however, the choice to set the action broadly in the present day, with modern clothes and cans of Bud Light, is more in line with current operatic conventions than the traditions of musical theatre. It is fairly common to see Così fan tutte set in the sixties or La bohème presented in a contemporary setting, but few people attempt to stage The King and I or South Pacific in anything other than their original time and place (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s 2021 production of Carousel is one exception). In addition, the act of having characters remain on stage eyeing up the action on occasions when they would not normally be in a scene may have a long theatrical tradition, but is currently seen in opera just as much as in musicals. Similarly, having no designated chorus so that the principals sing all of their parts and assume any roles that they serve feels positively Handelian.
The production features a new arrangement of the score by Daniel Kluger that sees just eight players in the orchestra, including musical director Tom Brady, and gives it a more overtly Country and Western twang. That is hardly out of keeping with what was originally written, but when Curly (Arthur Darvill) sings ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’’ while strumming his own guitar, turning a scene between two people into an almost participatory event as the other cast members watch just as we do, the overall tone feels very different from the start.
It would be churlish to criticise the evening for not delivering the same richness of sound as can be achieved by a full orchestra, or for not featuring the type of large dance routines that would require many more people. It is not the production’s aim to offer these, and instead it is focused on presenting both a deep and visceral interpretation of the work. However, it is questionable whether, judged on its own terms, it effectively delivers on what it sets out to do. There are some brilliant moments, but they rub shoulders with plenty of others that do not hit the mark, while too many of the production’s intentions simply seem incongruent. The aim to make it darker by laying bare the way in which the community mistreat the supposed villain Jud is both a noble and appropriate one. However, such an approach, which necessities downplaying many of the gags, seems ill at ease with hamming up other aspects of the show such as the raunchy ‘Persian Goodbyes’ and ‘Oklahoma Hellos’. A production can obviously do more than one thing, but nothing helps us feel for characters more than being sucked into the world that they inhabit, and it is harder to believe in this when the evening seems to lurch from one style of presentation to another. It is a risk that any show that attempts to break the fourth wall can face, and it is one that to an extent materialises here.
“There are some brilliant moments, but they rub shoulders with plenty of others that do not hit the mark…”
One can see the reasoning behind everything that occurs. It is good, for example, to see ‘Many a New Day’ being used to show Laurey (Anoushka Lucas) as her own person, who is both strong-minded and intelligent, but when the lights darken and the mood changes for its end it all feels too deliberate. Richard Rodgers was a master at writing songs where the final verse or line could turn the whole point of them on their head, but the beauty of such writing is undermined when the contrasts become so bold and unsubtle. The same problem occurs when Curly completes ‘People Will Say We’re In Love’ by taking to his guitar and a microphone as if he were performing an act on The Porter Wagoner Show. While much of the singing and acting is good, one suspects it is not always strong enough to carry off such effects, as is ironically revealed by the performance of Marisha Wallace as Ado Annie. This is masterly with her perfect delivery of the spoken lines getting all sorts of laughs, and her performance of ‘I Cain’t Say No’ being overwhelming enough to whisk us away without worrying about context or meaning. However, this in itself reveals that some of the other performances are not, although certainly none are bad.
The scene in the smokehouse is a mixed bag as singing ‘Pore Jud Is Daid’ with Curly strumming on his guitar makes the song feel too upbeat and robs it of its funerary quality. However, as we see the pair of men sat astride a table staring at each other, the sense of confrontation that verges on interrogation generates a very powerful atmosphere. The arrangement for Jud’s ‘Lonely Room’ that follows may initially feel too light for the song, but as it progresses it becomes increasingly intriguing so that it grows to suit it perfectly. Overall, the treatment of Jud is one of the production’s real triumphs as Patrick Vaill’s portrayal shows how he is not intrinsically rough or sinister, but rather that these are labels projected onto him by others. As such, we genuinely feel for the person who is on the receiving end of such abuse and, while it would be wrong to give the ending as it is played here away, no one could deny its power.
In fact, playing the lines of the trial straight down the board with no sense of joviality certainly leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, as it highlights how even after his death everyone is happy to ride roughshod over Jud, and show him no respect. Elsewhere though, and even accepting that many things are intentionally played differently, some of the jokes and points seem be missed. When Ali Hakim (Stavros Demetraki) claims, regarding Gertie Cummings (Rebekah Hinds), “I wanted to marry her when I saw the moonlight shining on the barrel of her father’s shotgun!” he leaves no pause in the line between the words ‘moonlight’ and ‘shining’, which is what makes the joke. Similarly, when Curly produces his gun at the auction to sell, we are supposed to think he is drawing it on Jud before we realise his intention is more innocuous, but that simply does not come across here.
The cast members, which include Liza Sadovy as Aunt Eller, James Davis as Will Parker and Greg Hicks as Andrew Carnes, all acquit themselves well, while a dance routine at the start of Act II, as a substitute for Act I’s ‘Dream Ballet’, very much hits the mark. It sees Laurey, played here by dancer Marie-Astrid Mence, fill the stage and, while it does still feature Jud, it is made to be a lot more about her in her own right as she sports a top proclaiming ‘Dream Baby Dream’. It is moments such as this that see the concept reach its full potential, and in the intimacy of the Young Vic’s Main House they certainly leave an impression.