Review – Oklahoma! Festival Theatre, Chichester, 27th July 2019

OklahomaThere’s a bright golden haze on the medder, sang Curly, all by himself, at the very beginning of Oklahoma! on its first night at the St James Theatre on Broadway in 1943, and its audience was gripped. It was the first time a big musical had opened with a lone voice rather than a group number; the first time Rodgers and Hammerstein had collaborated; and the first time that a “dream ballet” sequence showed us the secret fears of a lead character. You can only imagine the excitement of that first night crowd. In Britain, at that time immersed in the Second World War, we had to wait until 1947 to see it for ourselves, but I am sure it was worth the wait.

Hyoie O'GradyIt was also the first time that the book of a musical and its songs were fully integrated so that the music progressed our understandings of the characters. That was a development that had started with Show Boat; maybe recession and/or war kick start the creative spirit and encourage writers and composers to devise a work to bring us out of the gloom and into a happier place. Certainly those early audiences for Oklahoma! would have had their troubles, on both sides of the pond. You can envisage the theatregoers at the St James, the rows filled with uniformed servicemen either on leave or preparing for war, clinging on to a vestige of normality before being transported to who knows where for who knows what. There’s a revealing and rather heart-warming story mentioned in the programme, where the writer John Hersey told Richard Rodgers that “on a gritty battlefield in Sicily, a GI had awakened one morning and poured some cold water in his helmet to shave. Suddenly he began singing “Oh, what a beautiful morning” […] There was a fair amount of irony in his singing and his pals laughed”. To be honest, if I had been that GI, I would have done the same.

Amara OkerekeSo there’s a number of reasons why Oklahoma! (you have to include the !, otherwise it’s just a state) isn’t going away yet. A handsome young suitor courts a pretty young girl, but she’s made promises to another guy, so the two men are rivals; that’s a story as old as the hills. Surrounding them are the good influences of a kindly aunt, a pragmatic judge/lawmaker, a best friend who cain’t say no and the well-meaning but rather hopeless young chap who’s in love with her. In the background, we’re in early 1900’s Native American country, with its diverse ethnic spread, racial tensions, and itinerant immigrants; social division is everywhere – even the Farmer and the Cowman aren’t necessarily friends – and instead of churning butter, Aunt Eller is first seen cleaning her gun, setting the tone for the whole show. Will has just come back from Kansas City, where he saw astounding modern advancements, the like of which couldn’t be imagined in underdeveloped Oklahoma. Nevertheless, those hopeful aspirations are palpable; keep moving forwards and maybe soon they’ll also be part of that great United States of America. Work hard and be lucky; slack and you lack. You’re doing fine, Oklahoma.

Josie Lawrence and CompanyApart from the still relevant and contemporary nature of the story, it has a fantastic score without a duff note or a weak lyric, and some colourful, sparky, memorable characters creating a fine balance of comedy and pathos. Jeremy Sams’ new production takes all the show’s ingredients and creates a high impact treat, both visually and musically, which never shies away from the darker side of what’s going on, and there are a couple of moments where you shrink back in your seat in horror….

CompanyRobert Jones’ set and Mark Henderson’s lighting intertwine throughout the evening to make that golden haze, that Curly sings about in the first moments, a reality; enhanced by Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes. Light brown jackets and waistcoats, together with golden bales of wheat and tan saddles, all add to that colour scheme, whilst the backdrop and ceiling are bathed in blue to create a strong sunshiny feel. By contrast, Jud’s black dungarees and Ali Karim’s lurid green jacket and red trousers demonstrate that they’re outsiders.

Isaac Gryn and CompanyWhen I first saw Oklahoma! on stage, at the Palace Theatre back in 1980, I remember being thoroughly bored by the dream ballet sequence, regarding it as an antiquated construct that had no place in contemporary theatre. What an arrogant little brat I must have been. The (relatively) recent national tour production had the benefit of being choreographed by Drew McOnie, whose star has continued to rise, and transformed what could otherwise be a dull interlude into a fantastic set piece, incorporating other routines from the rest of the show. And in this new production, choreographer Matt Cole has also risen to the challenge of the dream ballet, working with the lighting and costume design to create a vivid fantasy nightmare for Laurey, that contrasts the romance of being pushed by Curly on a garden swing, and the white dresses of a perfect wedding day, with the black and red of Parisian strumpets doing scandalous Fosse-type routines reflecting Jud’s predilection for postcard porn. At the end there’s a fight where Jud floors Curly and kicks him into a pit surrounded by flames. No one falls asleep during this dream ballet, I assure you.

Emmanuel KojoThe fantastic fire-ography continues in the second half, when the usually happy, primary-coloured rousing title song turns from a celebration of everything that’s good about life into a torch-wielding, white supremacist lynch mob, about to go hunting for Jud. With those few, terrifying, staring seconds at the end of the song, they create a sinister, violent air; and, sure enough, Curly kills Jud (sorry for the spoiler), maybe accidentally, maybe not. Judge Andrew dispenses justice quickly and pragmatically in favour of Curly, and you take a step back from the scene and realise that this is a complete stitch-up against Jud. There’s a guilty red stain on the medder…

Scott Karim and Isaac GrynIt’s vital for a successful production of Oklahoma! that the two young lovers are performed by likeable actors; and Hyoie O’Grady as Curly and Amara Okereke as Laurey are not merely likeable, they’re totally adorable. As far as I can see both have had only limited experience on stage to now (although both are graduates of the Les Miserables cast change challenge) but they are superb. Mr O’Grady boasts a fine line in slightly vulnerable brashness; he’s the kind of guy all the men in the audience want to be, and all the women in the audience (and some of the men) wish their men were. Ms Okereke gives a beautiful and intelligent performance as the confused Laurey, reflecting the simplicity of the character’s life till now, her rightly judged self-esteem and her fears for the future. Both are natural exponents of the art of musical theatre, Ms Okereke in particular filling the vast Festival Theatre with her spectacularly emotional and rich voice. Two young actors who are definitely on the One To Watch list!

Josie LawrenceJosie Lawrence, whom we last saw in the brilliant Edmond de Bergerac in Northampton earlier this year, brings all her warmth and comic timing to the role of Aunt Eller; her on-stage chemistry with Curly and, particularly, Laurey, works beautifully as she acts as a kind of Pandarus between the two. She also has a delightful glint in her eye as she takes her place in the thick of all the dancing cowboys; it’s no surprise that she turns up in Laurey’s dream ballet as the brothel Madame. There’s another excellent partnership between Isaac Gryn as Will and Bronté Barbé as Ado Annie; he, fresh-faced and willing, if a trifle thick and she, wide-eyed, openly semi-promiscuous and easily influenced. Miss Barbé has a growing reputation as one of our new stars of musical theatre, and Mr Gryn is another new find who is already sensational at fronting a big dance number.

Isaac Gryn and Bronte BarbeThere’s a tour de force from the terrific Emmanuel Kojo as Jud, portraying him not as the grotesque pantomime ogre that he is sometimes played, but as a realistic, believable man – a loner, a victim of circumstance, but with plans and ambitions that are as valid as anyone else’s. His chilling scene with Hyoie O’Grady for Pore Jud is Daid, where Curly tries to sing Jud into taking his own life with the rope, plays to Mr Kojo’s strengths as he remains assertively immune to Curly’s suggestions, purely concentrating on his own wants from life. There are also great comedy turns from Emily Langham as the cackling Gertie Cummings and Scott Karim as the exotic wide boy Ali Hakim, expensively extricating himself from an unwanted marriage in a beautifully funny auction scene. And there’s a fantastically talented supporting ensemble in great voice, who bring Matt Cole’s stunning choreography to life.

Hyoie O'Grady and Josie LawrenceThere are those who maintain that musical theatre is an inferior form of the art and that it can achieve nothing more than moderate light entertainment. To those people, I say Phooey! Oklahoma! is proof that you can reflect and convey the full range of emotions of human existence and still come out singing People will say we’re in love. That takes some skill indeed. This is a fantastic production that went down a storm in the theatre; if it doesn’t transfer, I’ll eat my cowhide.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Edmond de Bergerac, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 9th April 2019

Edmond de BergeracQuestion: What does Speaker John Bercow say when he sees Cyrano de Bergerac in the House of Commons? Answer: The nose have it, the nose have it.

EDB 5I’d like to apologise for that childish opening, but bear with me, gentle reader. Cyrano is normally all about the nose, but in Alexis Michalik’s Edmond de Bergerac, it doesn’t make an entrance until the final scenes. And that makes sense, because this brilliantly funny account of how Edmond Rostand might have written his famous tragicomedy is all about heart; love for one’s art, whether it be writing or acting, and how you have to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous theatre managements in order to get your masterpiece on stage. It’s a wonderfully positive piece, where love finds its true course, hopeless wannabes find success, and even the villains are funny. So, really, the ayes have it, and in abundance.

EDB 3Rostand is down on his uppers, but does have a magnificent patronne in the formidable shape of Sarah Bernhardt, who’s still a box-office draw despite edging towards her best-by date. She organises a meeting between him and Constant Coquelin, the famous thespian who’s been having legal wrangles with the Comédie Française. Although he hasn’t written anything for years, Rostand somehow impresses the Great Man, who commissions a comedy from him; first read-through tomorrow.

EDB 9Thus comes the first of many nights where Rostand works round the clock, with encouragement from the manager of the Café Honoré, and support from his actor pal Léo. A serial womaniser, Léo introduces Rostand to his latest inamorata-in-waiting, Jeanne, and it’s through Rostand’s mentoring of Léo’s otherwise useless romantic small talk that he discovers the muse for Coquelin’s commission. But there’s an awful long way between that initial spark of creativity and Cyrano’s first night.

EDB 4Edmond de Bergerac joins that small but very special group of works of art (whether it be play, book, music, etc) that tries to shed light on its own creative process – and they’re always packed with insight. The film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, for example, intersperses the narrative of the story with scenes where the actors play themselves on set whilst making the self-same film. Elton John’s Your Song and Spandau Ballet’s True take us through the pains and motivations of the songwriter getting the words right. Edmond de Bergerac shows us the individual moments of inspiration that get transplanted into the, as yet, unwritten play; the personal relationships, the overheard arguments, other people’s fantastic one-liners that you just have to steal for your own work. By taking us through the creative process, it also emphasises the truth of what lies at the heart of the new created work. Have I lost you? Sorry, it’s one of my pet favourite things in art.

EDB 1From Honoré’s opening Bonsoir, (to which we all replied) to his final introduction of the curtain call, that fourth wall is always open, and we’re willingly drawn into Rostand’s theatrical world. When an idea comes into his head, he confides it to us. We share in Coquelin’s knife-edge relationship with the law. We love it when the star, who never bothers with stage management’s health and safety warnings, plummets through the trap door. There’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that Rostand is always comparing himself with the ultra-successful Georges Feydeau, because the show is crammed with half farce/half slapstick moments. I also loved the inventive staging suggestions (the train sequences are all hilarious), the over-the-top Frenchy characterisations; and the surprise appearances of the likes of Anton Chekhov and Maurice Ravel. It reminded Mrs Chrisparkle of the fabulously successful revival of Mr Whatnot a few years ago; and with aspects of Noises Off, Kiss Me Kate and Nicholas Nickleby in there too.

EDB 7It’s all performed at fantastic speed and pinpoint accuracy by a hugely likeable and talented cast of fourteen, playing something like fifty or sixty characters. At the still point in the turning world, Freddie Fox is outstanding as Rostand, clearly a devoted family man but unwittingly caught up in what looks like (to his wife at least) an illicit affair. Robin Morrissey is hilarious as the empty-headed matinée idol Léo, and Josie Lawrence uses all her fantastic vocal skills to create a very grande Bernhardt, a grumpy Duenna and a West Country prostitute who saves the day (in a number of ways).

EDB 8Chizzy Akudolu gives great comic presence to the diva-ish Maria, Simon Gregor steals every scene as the camp couturier and the pompous hotel receptionist, whilst Nick Cavalière gives great support in a number of roles including (with Mr Gregor), Coquelin’s creditors, the two menacing Floury brothers. Delroy Atkinson is superb as always as the assertive Honoré and the ham old actor, Harry Kershaw is terrific as the awful actor Jean, David Langham makes for a wonderfully pompous Feydeau, Sarah Ridgeway a kindly, put-upon Rosemonde, and Gina Bramhill a sparkling yet spikey Jeanne.

EDB 6Top of the shop is a superb performance by Henry Goodman as the ebullient and vain Coquelin, the demanding boss who needs his script double quick and insists on a duel scene because he’s quite handy with a rapier. Even though he’s potentially difficult and a nightmare to work with, we support him absolutely in his attempts to see Cyrano on stage. It’s a lovely comic performance but with plenty of serious tinges. But everyone gives a performance of top-quality commitment, and the result is an evening of sheer delight.

EDB 2Michalik’s original production opened in Paris in 2016 and is still packing them in after 800 performances. Of course, Cyrano de Bergerac is second-nature to the Parisien theatregoer; he’s like our Hamlet, but with added proboscis. This short touring production – the play’s UK première – courtesy of Birmingham Rep, in a translation by Jeremy Sams, still has dates at Cambridge and Richmond to follow, and I’m sure will do a lot to raise the profile in this country of not only Cyrano, but also Alexis Michalik. A marvellous tribute to Rostand and a fabulously funny night out. Don’t miss it!