A thrilling reinvention that swaps the twee for sex and danger
It’s the well-loved Broadway classic, a sun-soaked, barnstorming, hokey tale of beefcake cowpokes and wholesome farm girls. Except this time, it isn’t.
In Daniel Fish’s Tony-winning hit, those limitless blue skies have a habit of turning dark, and life is lived at gunpoint. Fish’s reinvention of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 slice of cornbread strips away the twee and replaces it with danger and sex. Co-directed with Jordan Fein, with a cast of just 12, it’s a gripping musical psychodrama that feels familiar yet completely new. Every moment has a hair-trigger tension.
Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher’s set transforms the theatre into a bunting-festooned community centre. There are beers and pots of chilli on trestle tables; rifles hang on the walls. We’re encouraged to feel like fellow townsfolk at this gathering, not least by Scott Zielinski’s lighting, which mostly keeps us in full, illuminated view, dipping to a lurid green at carnally charged crises or bleeding into a twilit orange for tender interludes.
Terese Wadden’s costumes of body-hugging denim bring modernity to the 1906 setting, and Daniel Kluger’s orchestrations for a seven-strong band have a saloon bar country and western vibe.
Arthur Darvill’s guitar-twanging cowboy Curly, swaggering in crotch-enhancing fringed chaps, sings a bluegrass rendition of famous opener “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’”, while sharp eyes under Stetsons and baseball caps look on.
Also watching narrowly is Anoushka Lucas’s tough, conflicted Laurey, whom Darvill’s hormonal Curly is discomfitingly determined to bed – if necessary, to wed – and who is also pursued by Patrick Vaill’s hired hand Jud Fry. This lonely, nervy outsider is the victim of Curly’s aggressive bullying; the scene in which Curly urges him to suicide unfolds in pitch darkness, Vaill’s frightened, wounded face glimpsed in shaky close-up video.
His climactic death is a blood-drenched horror followed by a swift, chilling cover-up, orchestrated by Laurey’s hard-boiled Aunt Eller (imposing Liza Sadovy). Laurey’s feelings for him, and for Curly, are angrily ambivalent: her choices are limited in frontier country, where for gunslinging men, women, like the land, are up for grabs.
Dealing more frankly with such issues is Marisha Wallace’s gloriously sensual, witty Ado Annie, who never says no to men who “talk purdy”.
And there’s a joyous hoedown at the local dance, where the women swap their jeans for ruffles and John Heginbotham’s choreography takes off with whirling polkas and two-steps. As for the famous Dream Ballet, it’s a wild, smoke-wreathed evocation of grinding farm toil, fear and erotic fantasy, in which dancer Marie-Astrid Mence, in a tee-shirt with the slogan “Dream Baby Dream”, embodies Laurey’s frustrations in athletic, staccato movement punctuated with equine gallops and leaps.
This is a raw refashioning both of a cherished show and American mythology: ingenious, and freshly thrilling.
To 25 June youngvic.org