Tag Archives: Marisha Wallace

Oklahoma! – Young Vic

Productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals have undergone quite the transformation in the past 12 months with versions that return to the source text to reimagine and reconsider shows like Carousel and South Pacific for the twenty-first century by returning the darker, often violent, subthemes that beat beneath the surface or to reposition some of the attitudes to race, gender, conquest and even physical attraction that reflect contemporary morality. Now, the Young Vic presents a rather sexy version of Oklahoma! that replaces twee interpretations of cowboy country with a throbbing desire that inflicts the inhabitants of this rural town, and becomes a fascinating technical exercise in deconstructing a musical.

Oklahoma! is perhaps not the best loved Rodgers and Hammerstein show, its dual romance plot is pretty thin and it lacks an expansive moral message to pin the show together. And while there is plenty of crossover with scenarios in Carousel – the same small community, the same drum beat of violence and notions of performative masculinity amidst non-conforming women and a similar commercial connection to the landscape – a set-to over a barn dance and bake sell doesn’t have quite the same sense of life and death jeopardy as some of their more accomplished work.

But Hollywood has much to do with interpretation, toning down the raunchier aspects of Oklahoma! to pass the censorship requirements but also to create romanticised versions of the great American past. What directors Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein have done at the Young Vic is to pull back the gingham curtains to reveal a showing that is teeming with unfulfilled sexual desire among a group of young characters confused about what their futures hold and unable to articulate or fulfil those needs. Looking again at the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Fish and Fein set notions of true love aside and instead look at the causes and sometimes hefty consequences of desire as unrequited passions, sexual jealousy and denial drive the characters to extreme behaviours.

And in doing so, the directors open up a far murkier version of this story, one in which the two love triangles, Laurey-Curly-Jud and Ado Annie-Ali-Will, have less clear cut resolutions, leaving the audience uncertain about the destined lovers and losers as well as where they should place their sympathies. Ado Annie, principally a comic creation, is also a woman embracing her sexual liberation, control of her own body and the freedom to ‘flirt’ with as many men as she chooses, an agency that the Young Vic’s production wholeheartedly embraces. Yet, her actions not only cause hurt to others that arouses a dangerous jealousy, but her fun is ultimately dampened by the old-fashioned morality represented by her father that, in resolution, ends up clipping her wings rather than freeing her. And this show is not afraid to leave us with that somewhat dissatisfied feeling that Ado Annie has been cheated out of becoming the women she wanted to be by embracing someone else’s notion of tradition.

Likewise, there is something deeply unsettling about the central relationship between Laurey and her contentious beaux Curly and Jud. Usually presented as unsavoury, predatory and a bit weird (and therefore undeserving of love), Jud is the easy villain of Oklahoma!, his lurking presence designed to make the audience root for Curly as the avowed and deserving lover of the plucky Laurey. But it’s not quite so clear cut in Fish and Fein’s new interpretation, and while Jud may be a friendless loner, there is a nervy sensitivity that asks whether, knowing of his affection for her, did Jud deserve to be used by Laurey and have his hopes raised? And is Curly’s reaction proportionate?

At the same time, Curly is by no means a straightforward hero; he too is drawn to Laurey but at no point does he declare his love for her or, in the early part of the musical, any clear intention to marry her. Instead there is a physical chemistry between them that drives their intention, corrupting their behaviours in the remainder of the story. Here Curly’s reaction to Jud feels extreme – if he loved Laurey and she loved him there should be no reason to fear Jud – which implies that Curly either has no better purpose in pursuing Laurey and fears exposure, and/or that his competitive spirit is aroused by the presence of second suitor, that winning rather than the girl of his dreams are the ultimate motivation.

What unfolds in the final moments of this production is the result of this complex mixture of emotional and physical desires that is, it seems, deliberately designed to leave a sense of discontent with the conclusion. As the townspeople rapidly close ranks, the truth of Jud and Curly’s final encounter is foggier than previously seen, a statement that morality and justice are not fixed certainties but that the community can influence them for their own ends. And while Rodgers and Hammerstein have tied up all the love story loose ends with two couples in the ‘right’ relationship, this is not the happy ending you might be expecting and instead Fish and Fein leave you to feel disquieted and even sullied by our observation of this tale.

Part of the reason for that is a series of technical decisions that keep the audience on the outside and prevents the viewer from becoming too invested in anyone. Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher nod to Soutra Gilmour’s recent work for Jamie Lloyd (particularly Cyrano de Bergerac and The Seagull) by covering the Young Vic auditorium in untreated and bare slabs of MDF into which two shallow bunkers have been carved out for the onstage band. In what feels like a homage to Lloyd’s style of theatremaking, the set becomes a representative space with some trestle tables and fold-up chairs in which imagined scenarios take place, allowing the text and songs alone to move the physical location from Aunt Eller’s farmyard to the venue for the box social and its environs. Eschewing elaborate scenery feels appropriate for the way in which Fish and Fein mine beneath the surface of Oklahoma!, while the occasional use of handheld microphones is an emphasis device that has had considerable impact in Lloyd’s recent work.

This production makes its most experimental contribution through Scott Zielinski’s complex lighting design that takes the musical in a new direction, drawing attention to different emotional emphases and carving really interesting boundaries between fantasy and reality, not only in the purposeful ‘dream ballet’ but especially within the everyday interaction. Zielinki’s choices are designed to alienate the audience, keeping the house lights up for much of the show which makes it frustratingly difficult to focus at times but ties into Fish and Fein’s vision for a show that denies investment in the characters and traditional notions of emotional involvement in their lives. That concluding feeling of contamination, of being tarnished comes partly from this stark visibility, making the audience complicit in the outcomes of the story, blurring the line between the characters and us, all under the same unforgiving bright lights.

But this is not all Zielinki has to say and lighting, or its absence, becomes a pointed communication choice throughout. When Laurey and Curly first connect, it happens suddenly in a deep green pulse that almost freezes the frame – more a Royal Court trick than a typical musical moment. In the Second Act, a deep orange and red starts to creep into the lighting tones, taking Laurey from her dream self confronting her emotions at the end of the ballet to a touch of twinkly romance in the false half light that feels laden with doom. But it is the absence of light that becomes pivotal when Zielinki employs two periods of blackout. The first is uncomfortably long, a total absence of light under which Jud and Curly intensely contend, speaking with whispered heaviness into the microphones to create a disembodied experience – echoing Mrs Danvers urging the second Mrs de Winter to destruction. A partial blackout with fairy lights happens in the second half as well, another emotional turning point which brings events between Jud and Laurey to a head. This is really interesting work from Zielinki, taking what is often perceived as a sunny musical and creating so many textures within the Young Vic space that provoke bodily reactions that accentuate the disorientation and ambiguity the production is aiming for.

The venue has assembled an excellent cast whose performances dig deep into the moral turpitude of the characters and their unsavoury behaviours. Anouska Lucas is in fine voice as Laurey, a happily independent woman who doesn’t need a man to improve her lot but finds herself almost undeniably attracted to Curly. Lucas and Arthur Darvill have an intense chemistry as the would-be lovers, with Lucas capturing the subtle but sultry physicality of her character, almost Katherina Minola-like in her self-possession and determination to fight for her independence while equally confused when she accepts Jud’s date in spite of herself. Lucas’s voice really is stunning too, deep and bluesy when she sings People Will Say We’re in Love and wistful during the toe-tapping number Many a New Day.

Darvill too is excellent, a confident figure who swaggers into town but with real affection for Eller and a strong desire for Laurey, although it is the darker strands that Darvill finds most interesting, leaving the audience unsure whether or not Curly is a good man. A recourse to violence, to getting what he wants at any cost runs through the character and whether he’s manipulating Jud into ending his life, which Darvill does in hushed and hurried tones, or acting reflexively in the final moments, Darvill’s Curly isn’t a man to admire, a dubiety that he evokes well. Many of his songs are consciously performed into a microphone while playing guitar but Darvill excels in spinning the musical numbers, giving those famous pieces Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ and The Surrey with the Fringe on Top a fresh, less orchestral feel, playing with pitch and trills to bed them into the country-blusey sound of this production.

The rest of the cast are excellent too, the ever-amazing Marisha Wallace is a comic joy as Ado Annie, revelling in her sexuality and selling every cheeky moment to an audience who adore her from the start. Liza Sadovy, fresh from her Olivier award-winning triumph in Cabaret, is commanding if underused as matriarch Aunt Eller whose match-making attempts motor the drama while James Davis and Stavros Demetraki as Ado Annie’s lovers Will and Ali have a great time as hilarious rivals who lighten the mood. Particular plaudits to Patrick Vaill who makes Jud an awkward outsider but belies his villain status with an emotional depth that makes his big pathos number Lonely Room especially affecting and leaves you questioning the outcome of the show.

This is not the jaunty Oklahoma! many may be expecting and in a period of significant rethinking and repositioning of the musical, this almost abstract approach feels like a natural progression. With some striking design choices, not least the sparring use of Joshua Thorson’s intimate facial projection, Fish and Fein have created something that disconcerts more than entertains, its dissatisfactory feeling engineered through a deliberate combination of theatre techniques designed to distract and disengage the audience from the characters to make broader points about destructive jealousy, female agency and townsfolk closing ranks against outsiders. This is not an Oklahoma! to love, but its staging choices and intent to challenge the viewer make it an interesting experiment in dramatic practice.

Oklahoma! is at the Young Vic until 25 June with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Hairspray – London Coliseum

Hairspray - London Coliseum

In January 2020, three Tracy Turnblads gathered at the BFI for a special screening of John Waters cult 1980s dance musical movie Hairspray. On the panel were Leanne Jones, the UK’s first stage Tracy when the full-blown song and dance version of Hairspray arrived in London in 2007, Lizzie Bea eagerly anticipating her own stage debut in April 2020 in the first major revival and the very first Tracy Turnblad, Ricki Lake. It was a very special event, one that cemented the enduring appeal of a feel good show dedicated to body positivity and racial integration in which a 60s schoolgirl dances her way to social revolution. A dance film that became a stage musical that became a musical film, Hairspray’s enduring legacy, echoed by three decades of Tracys, is a message for our reviving theatres – ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat.’

It is fourth time lucky for Jack O’Brien’s much delayed revival at the London Coliseum originally scheduled for April 2020, soon after debutante Bea’s promotional appearance at the BFI. But April became September, which became April 2021 and eventually June, where after a full week of performances to a reduced capacity audience of 1000, the show officially opens to the press later this week. And it is an absolute treat. The production may have been battered by the elements in the last 14 months, but this Hairspray is holding firm.

And there are few better shows to welcome fully-staged musicals back to life. It may be set in a cartoonish version of the past, filled with larger-than-life characters bouncing between chirpy ditties, but Hairspray’s story echoes the duet sung by Tracy’s parents; it is ‘timeless to me’. Its underlying social messaging about body image, teenage bullying and feeling like an outsider is ever-relevant, while the characters’ campaign to end segregation on a television dance show through protest and even imprisonment, is as pertinent as ever. And after a long and tiring period of uncertainty, its determination that a changed future is coming is the sliver of hope that audiences want to believe in.

The London Coliseum is an enormous auditorium that in recent years has housed starry summer revivals of Sunset Boulevard and Chess, so O’Brien’s production feels quite at home in a venue that did much to support the continuation and development of musical theatre during the pandemic. Several digital concerts were filmed here and streamed online, while a revival of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and the premiere of new musical After You were presented against the ornate backdrop of the theatre. The dates may have changed many times, but this production of Hairspray remained at the forefront of the Coliseum’s reopening plans.

Staging Hairspray

O’Brien and set designer David Rockwell have employed a little ingenuity in limiting the vastness of this stage and utilising their small cast of six principals, a handful of secondary roles and around 20 ensemble members to fill out the dance numbers. Often used for ballet, the relative intimacy of Tracy’s Baltimore home could easily have been lost on the Coliseum stage, but Rockwell creates a sizeable frame that contains the action within a smaller central television-shaped box that valuably reduces the width of the playing space by about a third to create an illusion of fullness that works very effectively. It gives the show a useful balance between the big, energetic numbers that fill the stage with bright colours, people and activity, and the smaller relationship-based songs that showcase the growing emotional connections between individuals which add heart to the political and entertaining elements of the musical.

Rockwell leans into the 60s aesthetic to create a deceptive flatness in the set that mimics animation from the era with houses in particular given tapered dimensions to create the illusion of height and scale. It is deliberately unreal to reflect the different kinds of bubble that the characters live in, where self-realisation is their path to enlightenment. Small islands are wheeled onstage to change location, moving between the streets of Tracy’s beloved city which whiz by in Good Morning Baltimore or the furnished illustrative platform containing a television set and ironing board to represent the Turnblad’s home, there is a simplicity to the set design and construction that creates fluidity.

Larger venues such as Corny Collins’s television studio and Maybelle’s record shop as core dance locations use far more of the floorspace with podiums containing their presenters’ DJ booths, hanging signs and freestanding doors doing just enough to create the illusion of place as Tracy and her friends go beyond the boundaries of their usual locations. Rockwell compensates for the minimal staging of the love songs with additional activity including silhouetted jailbird dancers seen through the backdrop for the prison in a nod to Chicago as Tracy and Link perform Without Love, later joined by Penny and Seaweed.

But Hairspray is a show that is ultimately about spectacle and O’Brien delivers some of the major set pieces with flair. William Ivey Long’s costumes and Paul Huntley’s wigs mirror the aesthetic that Rockwell has created in the set, drawing on the clash between traditional 50s shapes and the swirling patterns and extravagant trimming of the show’s 1962 setting. The transformation of Edna from drab housewife and laundress in shapeless dress and lank hair to glamorous ‘momager’ is a key moment, one which Long and Huntley manage with panache during Welcome to the 60s, and while Tracy’s own sartorial development is more subtle, her new found celebrity and romantic awakening are reflected in the clothing and wig choices.

Costume becomes a shorthand for characterisation in much of the show, just as it was in Waters’s original movie, and in this slimmed-down staging, costume is a visual tool to create status, personality, confidence and emotional depth. From Velma’s fitted fish-tale suit in vivid yellow, matched to Amber’s girl next door dresses in a similar hue, to Link’s drainpipe trousers and slicked hair, the PE kits in the sport scene, Wilbur’s dogtooth-patterned jacket and Maybelle’s luxurious fabrics, Long’s costumes sit neatly within the history of these characters in performance while reflecting the social tension between tradition and change, as well as the various sides of Baltimore life that reflect distinctions made in the show based on class, race and physical shape.

Choreography and Performance

By including Waters film in their movie musicals season, the BFI made the case for Hairspray to be viewed as a dance musical and its stage choreography is an important point of connection with the original non-singing film which uses the group routines and moves of the 1960s as its base. This revival retains Jerry Mitchell’s original stage choreography which does the same, drawing the distinction between the ‘cleaner’ moves performed by the ‘Nicest Kids in Town’ on the Corny Collins show dancing the ‘bird’ and the ‘mashed-potato’, and those evolving from Tracy’s response to music as she explores the more sensual rhythms of blues and soul with Seaweed and Maybelle which infuse the mainstream as the story unfolds.

With major musicals and new work largely limited to concert versions for many months, the opportunity to experience a full West End dance musical performance have been limited, so Hairspray is one of the first shows to stage big full company numbers on this scale for some time and it has a galvanising effect on the audience. The controlled complexity of the Hop scene in which the dancers are separated by race is particularly well achieved. Moving the shape of the dance around the stage to create character perspectives without mixing the segregated blocks looks effortless but is intricately done, while the ferocious spirit and pace of the finale number You Can’t Stop the Beat is a zesty riot of fluid movement, coordination and complex synchronisation as the cast deftly move around one another to bring the conclusion of different sub-narratives to the front of the stage before blending into the pack once more.

These larger-scale numbers never detract from the individual skill of the dance performers including Ashley Samuels as the fluid-hipped Seaweed whose nimble rendition of Run and Tell That is a dance highlight, along with showcase appearances in the detention scene, the Hop and Maybelle’s record shop. The Ensemble give the show its choreographic breadth and depth, performing as members of the Council for the formal TV show numbers while filling-out the world of Baltimore from street scenes to integration protesters, prisoners and the audience for the Miss Teenage Hairspray finale pageant where the full cast create a rousing song and dance spectacle to end the show.

Making her West End debut, Bea captures all of Tracy’s charm and carries the audience with her through the story, no easy feat in a show with experienced performers in front of an expectant crowd. A character that the audience instantly adores, Bea’s Tracy has very little self-doubt and is resolved to achieve everything she wants – whether that’s joining the Corny Collins Council, dating Link or ending segregation. Bea is comic when she needs to be, brings out Tracy’s naive and romantic sides at times and conveys her character’s infectious enthusiasm for music, new experiences and social change. Bea hits her stride early, landing her first big number – Good Morning Baltimore – while her performance of I Can Hear the Bells is a fantastic proclamation of Tracy’s ambitious delusion, earning her place on the panel of Tracys alongside Leanne Jones and Ricki Lake.

Michael Ball established the role of Edna in the UK in 2007 and his return is a triumph. His second trip down memory lane in recent years following a period in Les Miserables: The Staged Concert, Ball is clearly having so much fun as Tracy’s sweetly underrated mother who follows her daughter’s lead and transforms into a confident and sexy modern woman. Ball’s finest moment is the duet You’re Timeless to Me with Les Dennis (replacing Paul Merton as Wilbur) which turns into a comic masterpiece. The pair have a wonderful stage chemistry and, performed in front of the curtain like a Music Hall act, they fill their big number with cheeky jokes, a bit of improvisation and pure joy at being able to perform for a live audience once again – this number is a showstopper and, as the actors heroically avoid corpsing, it has the audience in fits of laughter.

Hairspray has an accomplished supporting cast including a slickly villainous turn from Rita Simons in fine voice as Velma and, making his own West End debut, Jonny Amies proves a great partner for Bea as heartthrob Link. Ahead of Press Night, Marisha Wallace as Motormouth Maybelle and Georgia Anderson’s Amber could slightly reduce the throttle in their acted scenes which for Anderson particularly doesn’t give her character anywhere to go but Wallace’s vocal on I Know Where I’ve Been is extraordinary, a goosebump moment that fills the room with sound as only live musical theatre can.

14 months and four attempts later, Hairspray is finally back in the West End – the energy, sentiment and exhilaration of the show is completely irresistible. So many tentative steps have been taken towards the revival of live theatre focusing largely on monologue and two-person pieces, so it is almost overwhelmingly wonderful to see a full song and dance performance that showcases the very best creative talent in set design, costume, choreography and performance. Concluding with a rapturous standing ovation in which a thousand socially distant people made the noise of three times as many, whatever the hardships and struggles that theatre has endured, Hairspray sends a message of hope because you really can’t stop the beat.

Hairspray is at the London Coliseum until 29 September with tickets from £17.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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