Interview: James Patrick Davis on his return to Oklahoma! – “It feels incredible”

In the hands of Daniel Fish, who co-directs with Jordan Fein, Roger & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! is no cosy romantic western musical – it is stripped back, sexual and visceral, fully earning the ‘sexy Oklahoma!’ tag it gained on Broadway. Following a run at the Young Vic, it transfers to the West End with the majority of the cast, including Arthur Darvill (Curly McLain), James Patrick Davis (Will Parker), Anoushka Lucas (Laurey Williams),  Liza Sadovy (Aunt Eller) and Patrick Vaill (Jud Fry) reprising their roles.

For Davis and Vaill this means they have followed the production through its entire cycle, from off-Broadway, to Broadway, across the Atlantic to the Young Vic and now into the West End. We caught up with Davis during rehearsals to talk about all things Oklahoma!

Q&A with James Patrick Davis

Hi James, it’s good to be able to chat with you about your return to Oklahoma! How does it feel to be transferring to the West End, and how will it compare to playing the show on Broadway? 

It feels incredible. This show has been a defining life experience for me. The fact that we got this production to Broadway in the first place seems like somewhat of a miracle considering its humble origin story. Playing it on the West End is just a continuation of the unbelievable momentum this modern Oklahoma! has accumulated.

How much as your approach to playing Will Parker changed as the play as has transferred from Off-Broadway to Broadway before crossing the Atlantic?

Will Parker from my perspective has been specifically different in each iteration. Where I am in my own personal life changes my approach to this character. Who I’m playing this character against changes the interpretation. This West End Ado Annie will be my fourth Ado Annie and I love that because it makes it new for me every time. I’d like to think that as I get older I also gain more experience and those tools are there to be used to improve my craft. I hope I never stop learning and growing. I’d love to play Will Parker at 65. Who could he be then!?

James Patrick Davis (Will Parker) and Georgina Onuorah (Ado Annie) rehearsing Oklahoma! Photo: Marc-Brenner

Wyndham’s is a more traditional theatre space, whereas the play was performed almost in-the-round at the Young Vic. How much will that influence what happens on stage?

It will influence what happens on stage tremendously. This will be a radically different staging. This is my fifth production, and it is the scariest and most exciting because the space we’re performing in is the most unlike the others. But I wouldn’t want to just put it up in a space like the others. I like the challenge and approach of tailor-making a new show for a new space and a new year. Let’s stretch it and see where we can take it!

Oklahoma! was your UK theatre debut – has it felt different playing to UK audiences?

Yes. With Oklahoma! in the US this musical is a national treasure. The soundtrack was a vinyl record every family had growing up going back to the 1940s. Every high school across America performs it. A movie version was made in the said “Golden Age of Hollywood.” It was the first modern American musical for God’s sake. I’d imagine most Americans over a certain age identify with some version they remember being exposed to. But even to younger generations, too. It’s been referenced in Watchmen and Euphoria on HBO. So, when those many Americans came into the theatre to see our version, they had an association. Or had long-lost memories resurfacing as they watched.  In the UK there was obviously less of that, though some. Apparently, Queen Elizabeth and Philip danced to “People Will Say We’re in Love” at their wedding; it was their love song. There were fresher eyes. One way of viewing it is not better than the other. Just a fascinating difference. It is just one of the most quintessentially American pieces of art of all time.

Finally, how would you describe Oklahoma! to someone considering buying a ticket for the show?

Exciting, challenging, entertaining, deeply felt, worthy, sexy, stupid, unforgettable.

Oklahoma! is at Wyndham’s Theatre from 16 February until 2 September 2023.