Oklahoma! – BBC Proms – Royal Albert Hall

Oklahoma! at the BBC Proms was performed at the Royal Albert Hall, London.

Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩

Few titles deserve their exclamation mark more than Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! The score sounds as fresh as it did when it was written in 1943 and at this semi-staged performance there might have been folk who remember what a fillip Oklahoma was to a nation worn out by the Second World war when it opened in London at Drury Lane in 1947.

The orchestrations from that original production are the ones by Robert Russell Bennett, newly edited for this performance. They happily retain certain elements of the dance band style of the period as well as that crucial theatrical ambience pertinent to the size of ensemble that would have been originally heard at that time.

At the Royal Albert Hall the bust of Sir Henry Wood looked down on a scenic panorama of Oklahoma! state behind the John Wilson Orchestra.

The extended stage in front of them, featured a milk churn to the left, cart to the right and Aunt Eller’s mangle, still allowing a generous performing space for the singing and dancing ensemble.

Curly entered unseen, singing: “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow…”, which Nathaniel Hackmann performed superbly.

In the wrong hands Curly can come across as a bit of a bore, but in Hackmann’s portrayal, with his fetching manner and easy gait, the character came alive in every number.

In ‘The Surrey With the Fringe On Top’ he cass a spell with every line, and he wrestled Jud Fry to the ground with equal conviction.

His Laurey, Scarlett Strallen, so adorable in She Loves Me at the Menier Chocolate Factory last year, seemed less happy in this role. The voice at the top lacked focus in the auditorium, or was it that wretched sound system?

However, her dancing in the ‘Dream Ballet’ that closed the long first half was sublime, and she brought a sure touch early on to her very funny scene with Ado Annie, both of them enjoying Hammerstein’s rollicking dialogue, as well as her first encounter with Curly: “I thought you were somebody.”

Neither Lizzy Connolly’s Ado Annie or Belinda Lang’s Aunt Eller, both playing larger-than-life characters, were favoured by the over-amplified miking, their dialogue touching on the point of incomprehensibility.

The male leads escaped this onslaught. Robert Fairchild, as Will Parker, Ado Annie’s intended, relished his ‘Kansas City’ number, while his arms and legs seemed to have extensions of their own as he demonstrated in his two-step to Aunt Eller.

Marcus Brigstocke, as the pedlar Ali Hakim, veered all over the place with his accent. His song (‘It’s a Scandal, It’s an Outrage!’), as well as his interchanges with Curly and Jud Fry kept him busy!

David Seadon-Young gave a strong but sympathetic performance as Jud Fry. He had a constant lolloping gait and a knife or Colt 45 never far from hand, which lent his scenes with Curly an added frisson.

Their duet, ‘Pore Jud Is Daid’, and his subsequent solo, ‘Lonely Room’, were the dramatic heart of the evening. Such was the eloquence of their singing and touching restraint in performance, that one felt the following ballet was surplus to requirements.

Act II opens with the rousing singing of ‘The Farmer and the Cowman’, with Clive Carter in commanding form as farmer Andrew Carnes, trying to keep the peace.

Many twists and turns in the plot followed before the final chorus of ‘Oklahoma!’ bringing in its wake the accidental knifing of Jud by Curly.

Their fight was unrestrained and convincing, staged by director Rachel Kavanaugh, alongside the many short scenes in this act.

The choreography by Alistair David was accomplished too, whether galvanising the men in their ‘Kansas City’ high-jinks or in his composition of the exquisitely lit dance, ‘Many a New Day’, his movement adding a vitality and warmth to the ensemble.

The crowning achievement of the evening came with the playing of the John Wilson Orchestra happily untouched by the amplification. From the moment the overture began, we knew there was a treat in store.

What a joy to hear a string section play with such enthusiasm and sweetness of timbre. The score was beautifully paced, note the slight pause as each verse led into the refrain, and the sparing yet telling employment of rubato. The energy in the ensembles was tangible.

In Jud Fry’s house, the sombre mood was coloured by dark hued wind and brass playing as if by brush stroke. Here’s to the next time!

Adrian Edwards

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