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 – Oklahoma! Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 19th February 2015

OklahomaWhen it comes to writing the annals of the development of Musical Theatre, few productions are more significant than Oklahoma! Based on Lynn Riggs’ play Green Grow the Lilacs, this was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first partnership. It wasn’t foreseen that R & H would be a dream team together, even though they’d had considerable successes in previous partnerships (Rodgers and Hart, Hammerstein and Kern). Given that the source play had been a flop on Broadway, chalking up only 64 performances, and that Oscar Hammerstein had had a string of disasters throughout the 30s, commercial backing was hard to come by. Few people thought a folksy musical set in historical Indian Territory would be The Next Big Thing. But those few people who did, laughed all the way to the bank as the original Broadway production of Oklahoma! ran for 2,212 performances (at the time a Broadway record) from 1943 to 1948, and the West End production didn’t do badly either, opening in 1947 and running for 1,543 performances. In London, Curly was played by a young Howard Keel – so young, in fact, that at that stage he hadn’t yet changed his name from Harold Keel. And there was the film version too, directed by Fred Zinnemann in 1955 – I expect that made a few bob.

Ashley Day and Charlotte WakefieldBut it’s not only as a commercial success that it’s significant. Stylistically it was way ahead of its time. Usually musical shows would open with a big ensemble number to get the mood swinging – after all, the musical is the perfect vehicle for upbeat, uptempo, comic, all-singing and all-dancing theatre. The original production of Oklahoma! (like Oliver! you must never forget the exclamation mark) started with an old woman churning butter and a young cowboy singing Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ offstage, on his own, with no accompaniment. From glitzy and glamorous to minimalist in one fell swoop, you couldn’t get a more reserved, introverted start. In this new production directed by Rachel Kavanaugh, Curly does actually come on stage before he starts singing, and Aunt Eller is washing shirts rather than churning butter, but I guess that’s progress.

Charlotte WakefieldThen there is the subject matter. Forget your Irving Berlin and Cole Porter fripperies of the 1920s and 30s, here we have a tale of survival, of ruthlessness, of potential violence. In its exploration of adolescent love there’s an element of Spring Awakening; in the character of Jud Fry you have a brutal sex pest, the cause of which may be due to his mental deficiencies; with his murder at the hands of Curly, you have the heroic young male lead killing off his rival in love. There were certainly elements of the story with which Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t comfortable. There’s a scene where Curly shows Jud how easy it would be to hang himself, using a rope tied round a conveniently protruding beam end. The song Pore Jud is Daid is a fantasy about how, after he has died, everyone realises what a great bloke he was (he wasn’t) and how much they will miss him and weep for him (they won’t). Where else would it be acceptable to laugh at a scene where a young man tries to convince his mentally challenged rival to top himself? It’s definitely the stuff of Orton or Bond – hardly what you would expect from a jolly Rodgers and Hammerstein musical from the 1940s. But that is the power of the musical – it can explore such difficult material whilst retaining the veneer of light entertainment.

Belinda LangSo it’s great to welcome this new production of Oklahoma! to the Royal and Derngate before it embarks on its national tour. The performance we saw last night was its first preview before opening on Monday and you could almost taste the excitement from the stage as the cast gave it all they had and seemed to have a great time in the process. Francis O’Connor’s set slowly opens out in the first few moments as the back flies up to reveal a hint of the bright golden haze on the medder; Aunt Eller’s front porch looks poor but hospitable; the ever revolving windmill sail keeps on turning and it’s easy to imagine yourself taken back to the Indian Territory of 1906 before it is assimilated as the 46th state of the USA as Oklahoma. Stephen Ridley’s ten-piece band plays the amazing score like a dream (there isn’t a duff song in the show, although occasionally some of them end a little more suddenly than you expect), and the volume amplification is set to just perfect (something that’s so easy to get wrong nowadays).

Gary WilmotThe choreography is by Drew McOnie, who basically seems to have choreographed every show we’ve seen recently, and is a joy to watch. You can see that a lot of it is inspired by the action of getting on or off your horse, with a sense of cowboy machismo running through it like a stick of rock. Typical of these early-mid twentieth century musicals you’ve also got a dream ballet sequence to contend with. As an audience member, if you’re not attuned to the choreographer’s style than these can be anywhere on a scale from dull to excruciating. But Mr McOnie has created an exciting, dynamic piece of modern dance, including aspects from other numbers and routines elsewhere in the show, and really bringing to life the tangibility of Laurey’s dream, with its sensual delights and terrifying horrors in equal measure. No dull dream ballet this, but a riveting dance drama, fantastically performed. Oh, and there’s dancing with bales of hay. Where else would you find that?

James O'Connell and Lucy May BarkerThe show is blessed with a talented and likeable cast who give some tremendous performances. At its heart is the on-off love interest between Curly and Laurey and you really need to believe the relationship between these two for the show to work – and they express that relationship magnificently. Early in the show Charlotte Wakefield’s Laurey is to be found moping on Aunt Eller’s porch, sending off hostile vibes to Curly; but she has a glint in her eye from the start and really captures that sense of a young girl being swept away by her emotions. She is a brilliant singer, and brought a massive amount of warmth and affection to the role. She was perfectly matched by Ashley Day as Curly (who we last saw as one of those nice Ugandan missionaries in The Book of Mormon) at first feigning cocky confidence over his wanting to take Laurey to the box social that night, but soon unable to conceal his true feelings for her. I can imagine there’s a considerable sense of responsibility in delivering the iconic Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ by yourself, right at the beginning of the show, but Mr Day carried it off with ease. Vocally the two blend stunningly. I really enjoyed the whole Surrey with the Fringe on Top routine, and they did more than justice to People Will Say We’re In Love, a song I learned in my infancy, it being one of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourites. These are two young actors to watch – they’re definitely on course for a great career in musical theatre.

Charlotte Wakefield in rehearsalThere are also a couple of actors who are already at the peak of their fantastic careers, and these performances will do no harm to their CVs either. Aunt Eller is played by Belinda Lang with amazing conviction. She’s on stage a lot of the time, even if she’s just washing shirts or observing conversations. We both loved how she expressed the kindliness of the role with very little sentimentality. It was a harsh world in those days, and you can see it in Miss Lang’s eyes. She also turns on the comedy with a great deftness, particularly in the Act Two opener, The Farmer and the Cowman, wielding a rifle that’s almost bigger than she is. And of course there is everyone’s favourite song and dance man, Gary Wilmot, as the Persian peddler Ali Hakim, with a comic performance that’s part pantomime, part music hall, whilst never going over the top or losing sight of the genuine concerns of his character. We’ve seen Mr Wilmot a few times recently – in the Menier’s Invisible Man, the Birmingham Hippodrome’s Snow White and in Radio Times at the Royal, and if ever there was a born entertainer, it’s him.

Belinda Lang in rehearsalThe ensemble boys and girls all sing and dance with great verve and enthusiasm and brighten up the stage whenever they are on. But there are also some great performances from other members of the cast. I was very pleased to see that one of my favourite performers was in this show, James O’Connell as Will Parker, the not-overly intelligent suitor to Miss Ado Annie Carnes, who has been told to save $50 before her father will agree to their marriage; and who every time he amasses $50, he spends it. We saw Mr O’Connell in Chichester’s Barnum a couple of years ago and he’s a great combination of character actor and dancer. What I particularly admire about him is how nifty he can be on his feet without being one of the more svelte members of the cast. I’m sure he’s also going to have a great career. Lucy May Barker was Ado Annie, and gave us a brilliantly funny I Cain’t Say No. It’s a great fun role, being hopelessly attracted to every man she meets, and Miss Barker does it with great aplomb. There was also excellent support from Kara Lane as the horrendous Gertie Cummings, laughing hideously as she gets more and more attached to the unfortunate Ali, and Paul Grunert as Ado Annie’s inflexibly stern and protective father Andrew – who also allows Curly to get off scot-free at the end.

Nic GreenshieldsAnd that nicely brings us to Nic Greenshields as Jud, which has to be one of the most serious roles in all musical comedy – and maybe thankless too, as the audience doesn’t like the character even though you’re not a typical stage villain. Mr Greenshields has a fantastically imposing stage presence, and he creates the most expressive and moving performances of the songs Pore Jud is Daid and Lonely Room. There is a fine line to be trod with the character of Jud – part thug, part bumpkin; the kind of guy who will line the walls of his living room with the equivalent of Page 3 Girls, and fantasise about gadgets that will kill a man without his having a clue he’s in danger; but who on the other hand is simply desperately lonely and in need of some female company. Mr Greenshields treads that line perfectly – I thought it was a tremendous performance.

Gary Wilmot in rehearsalOklahoma! is scheduled for a national tour from now until the middle of August. Whilst it may be a little old fashioned for some people’s taste, nevertheless when you have a score as rich and entertaining as this, as well as an excellent cast, great singing and dancing and plenty to think about on the way home, I unhesitatingly recommend it as a terrific revival of one of the most significant shows in American musical theatre. Oklahoma, OK!

Publicity photos by Pamela Raith