For those of you less au fait with classic American musical theatre, I shall begin with a little précis. The year is 1906. The location somewhere in rural Oklahoma. Cowboy Curly loves farm girl Laurey. Laurey loves him too, however, the pair both feign indifference born of pride, engaging instead in a banterous battle of wits. One morning, Laurey rebuffs Curly’s invitation to the farmer’s social, agreeing instead to go with sinister farm hand Jud, sparking a battle between the two men for Laurey’s affections. Joining them down on the farm are loved-up cowboy Will and his wandering-eyed fiancée Ado-Annie, Matriarch Aunt Ella and Persian peddlar Ali-Hakim. Two weddings, a death and a whole lot of line-dancing later, our story arrives at its dramatic, tragic conclusion.
This production was anchored by two outstanding performances from Guy Hughes, as charming cowboy Curly, and Elissa Churchill as sweetheart Laurey. Hughes, with boundless charm and a superb voice, was a joy to watch as Curly. It might just be me, but the moment he looked at Laurey and proclaimed “You gotta marry me, I just don’t know what I’m gonna do if you don’t”, I sensed a subtle collective sigh from every female audience member. Fresher Elissa Churchill commanded the stage as ballsy, quick-witted farmgirl Laurey, the Beatrice to Curly’s deep-south Benedick, with a perfect southern drawl and a delightful coquettish manner.
Felix Stevenson, however, easily stole the show, with perfect mannerisms and heaps of hysterical one-liners as peddler Ali Hakim. He must be further commended for commitment to his art for undergoing some serious fake-tanning in order to attain his Persian complexion. Elsewhere, David Stodel impressed as menacing, misunderstood farmhand Jud, his quietly threatening performance successfully giving depth to a plot which could have otherwise quite easily been a frivolous love story.
This was a cast entirely at ease with their piece, no clearer than in the spectacular dance scenes. From line-dancing to can-can, to a twenty-minute glorious ballet sequence, choreographer Emma Cave’s innovative, slick routines were nothing short of astounding, whilst this talented cast performed them with impressive precision. Seasoned Musical Director Seth Miall, meanwhile, made Rodgers and Hammerstein’s glorious scores soar, helped in his endeavour by an astonishingly good orchestra.
Let’s be honest, Oklahoma isn’t really the coolest of musicals. There are farmers. There is barn dancing. There is a LOT of gingham. Written in the 1940s, and set in 1906, the world of Oklahoma, with its antagonisms between farmers and cowboys, sweet-potato pie making contests and vague xenophobia could appear stale and outdated to a modern viewer. However, from the wild applause and exuberant laughter which greeted the end of each scene, it was clear that director Julia Loveless had managed to breathe new life into this old classic.
My only criticism would be the length of the show. Sticking closely to the original, the first half alone clocked in at almost two hours. Long, though lovely, musical numbers repeatedly broke the momentum built elsewhere in the show. Gripes aside, this was truly brilliant theatre, with DULOG once again exhibiting the wealth of truly amazing talent that exists in Durham and indisputably proving that life is much more fun in cowboy hats and chaps.