Put it this way: the last summer musical that transferred from the Chichester Festival Theatre to the West End (Festival 2016’s Half A Sixpence, for those who need a memory jog) also ended with a newly married couple getting into a motorcar and driving off while very nearly all the other characters wave them goodbye. Oklahoma!, unlike that other show, is as American as ever in this faithful but nonetheless fresh production. This sprightly revival with an excellent cast signals ‘business as usual’ for the Festival Theatre, continuing a long-running series of summer song-and-dance extravaganzas.
One is periodically reminded of how pervasive the gun culture is in the United States throughout proceedings – when Curly McLain (a hugely likeable Hyoie O’Grady) sells his handgun for the one reason people sold off their possessions back in the day (that is, to satisfy a financial need elsewhere), other characters are up in arms (so to speak), concerned about how Curly will be able to defend himself against all the other gun owners out there whenever he does so much as venture out for a walk in broad daylight. Ironic, then, that the only on-stage death in the show doesn’t involve a gun at all – just pointing one at someone, whether it is loaded or not, seems to be enough to dissuade the other party from doing anything other than precisely what the gun holder would like.
Josie Lawrence’s Aunt Eller is huskily voiced, which suits the spoken dialogue better than it does the musical numbers – the matriarchal figure gets far more of the former. There’s no revolve for this summer’s big musical (not that it would have particularly benefited from having one); the choreography (Matt Cole) is well-suited to the huge CFT stage, but even with this sizeable cast of two dozen, it looks a bit bare from time to time. The production encompasses a wide range of dance and movement – from fight scenes to a ballet: as the old adage puts it, variety is the spice of life. The lighting could have reduced the seeming enormity of the set even further than it did: everything seems rather panoramic.
If the close affinity between Curly and Laurey (Amara Okereke) isn’t always convincing, the narrative supports this. I love the sound design (Paul Groothuis) in this production, set at a perfect volume – though the cast ensure they aren’t belting everything out, if anything because they simply do not need to. A mix of subtlety and high energy combine to provide an absorbing journey, even if it’s one that audiences have been on before.
Emily Langham, who did so well as Anybodys earlier in 2019 in the Royal Exchange Theatre production of West Side Story in Manchester, makes the most of the role of Gertie Cummings, distinguishable largely by a loud and persistent laugh, while Emmanuel Kojo’s Jud Fry has a glorious singing voice that fills the auditorium beautifully. (No wonder Okereke’s Laurey has trouble deciding between Jud and Curly, at least initially.) There are also some highly amusing supporting roles to enjoy: Ali Hakim (Scott Karim) brings the house down even if he’s just a teeny-weeny bit too hammy, and Nicolas Colicos’ Andrew Carnes has excellent stage presence.
Some of the issues raised in this show, which premiered in 1943 and is set in the early 1900s, continue to be relevant today. There’s resentment and envy, and at the ‘box social’ (a term that has its own Wikipedia entry if you’re unfamiliar with the term) simmering tensions threaten to bring a community event to a premature and chaotically violent close. Nigel Lilley conducts a fourteen-strong orchestra – and they are flawless in their execution of what was a ground-breaking score.
Oklahoma! is indeed “doin’ fine” in this sparkling and spectacular revival.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Handsome cowboy Curly McLain is head over spurs for farm owner Laurey Williams. But lonely ranch-hand Jud Fry has his sinister sights set on her too.
And Laurey’s not the only girl with cowboy problems. Ado Annie’s beau Will Parker is back from chasing steers in Kansas City, where he won the fifty dollars her father insists Will must have to marry her. But this irrepressible farm girl won’t be bought quite so easily.
Luckily for this love-struck crew of spirited ranchers and bronco busters, wise Aunt Eller is riding ahead of the herd.
Josie Lawrence – Aunt Eller
Hyoie O’Grady – Curly
Amara Okereke – Laurey
Michelle Andrews – Ensemble
Georgie Ashford – Ensemble
Lindsay Atherton – Vivian & Ensemble
Imogen Bailey – Ensemble
Bronté Barbé – Ado Annie Carnes
Jeremy Batt – Ensemble
Alex Christian – Ensemble & Dance Captain
Nicolas Colicos – Andrew Carnes
Christopher Dickins – Cord Elam & Ensemble
Paige Fenlon – Ensemble
Isaac Gryn – Will Parker
Alyn Hawke – Ike & Ensemble
Bethany Huckle – Ensemble
Scott Karim – Ali Hakim
Emmanuel Kojo – Jud Fry
Emily Langham – Gertie Cummings & Ensemble
Michael Lin – Ensemble
Rory Shafford – Ensemble
Jak Skelly – Ensemble
Rhys West – Ensemble
Anna Woodside – Ensemble
Jeremy Sams – Director
Robert Jones – Set Designer
Brigitte Reiffenstuel – Costume Designer
Matt Cole – Choreographer
Nigel Lilley – Musical Supervisor, Musical Director & Dance Arrangements
David Cullen – Orchestrator
Mark Henderson – Lighting Designer
Paul Groothuis – Sound Designer
Charlotte Sutton – Casting Director
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s
Music by Richard Rodgers
Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs
Original choreography by Agnes de Mille
15 July – 7 September 2019