There’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.
It 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.
So 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.
Apart 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….
Robert 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.
When 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.
The 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…
It’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 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.
There’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.
There 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