Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 4th March, 2015
This revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic musical is just about flawless. From the moment the overture begins, you know you’re in for a good time as we’re reminded of the wealth of good tunes that lies ahead. The curtain rises on Francis O’Connor’s rather monochromatic set, all horizontal planks like a big ol’ barn. In fact, instead of the great outdoors and wide open spaces, the set boxes the characters in. They have a restricted world view, out there in the sticks – as evidenced in the song “Kansas City” where even the most basic advancements in technology and infrastructure are greeted as marvels of the modern age. Colour is brought to the production by O’Connor’s evocative costumes and by some beautiful lighting design by Tim Mitchell.
Populating this set is an energetic and lively chorus just brimming with yee-hah spirit. Drew McOnie’s choreography is in keeping with the period (early 1900s), the place (the wild frontier) and seems fresh and original, all at once.
Belinda Lang is Aunt Eller, a crotchety matriarch (all the other females seem to be nubile young women) with a no-nonsense approach and a dry sense of humour. She embodies the pioneer spirit, hard-working, wise and willing to embrace change and challenge. Lang is magnificent in this less-than-glamorous role.
Charlotte Wakefield’s Laurey is sweet and spunky – her bickering scenes and duets with Curly are highlights – of a show that is almost all highlights! Lucy May Barker as the promiscuous Ado Annie delivers a flawless rendition of “I Cain’t Say No!” – her characterisation is both naïve and calculating. James O’Connell is her beau Will Parker, an appealing hunk and an excellent dancer. Their troubled romance is a counterpoint to the main plot, the relationship between Laurey, Curly and brooding farmhand Jud Fry.
As Fry, Nic Greenshields is all menace, using his stature and build to terrify us, keeping his outbursts of temper to a minimum. He also has a resounding baritone voice – a worthy villain! Scenes in Jud’s smoke house of porn are exceptionally creepy.
Big name casting for this tour is veteran star Gary Wilmot who is ideally cast as itinerant pedlar Ali Hakim. Wilmot has Hakim’s sardonic humour down pat and, of course, can deliver a show tune apparently effortlessly. Value for money, indeed.
But for me, the show is all about Curly. Here, Ashley Day is perfect. Tall, handsome, with a voice to make you swoon, he balances Curly’s cocky humour and his all-out decency. You can’t help falling for him. In fact, I’d better change the subject or people will say I’m in love.
Director Rachel Kavanaugh delivers comedy and drama, allowing the tones of Rodgers’s score to inform the show’s moods and Hammerstein’s delightful lyrics to come to the fore. There is genuine tension in the climactic knife fight (directed by Christopher D Hunt) – even if you know the outcome already.
This top-quality show has it all, and you can’t help leaving the theatre with a grin on your face and warmth in your heart. This touring production reminds us why the show is a classic – staged and performed by exuberant, irresistible talent.