Chichester Festival Theatre – until 7 September 2019
With Jeremy Sams’ production of Oklahoma! Chichester Festival Theatre is back producing some of the country’s most exciting musical theatre. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic, set amongst the prairies and cattle ranches of what was known at the turn of the 20th century as Indian Territory (the state of Oklahoma only being formed in 1907), takes a story of love, action and passion set to some of the finest tunes in the canon.
But for all the genius in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s writing, Oklahoma! is a desperately dated piece. It was a time when unmarried daughters were seen as very much their fathers’ property, while the biased frontier justice that is meted out in the show’s final act makes one realise just quite how sugar-coated the Broadway audiences of 1943 needed their stories to be.
But amidst this dated glimpse of a post-Civil War America, Sams and his creative team have delivered theatrical magic. In a bold casting move the two leading roles are given to relative industry newcomers. Hyoie O’Grady plays the cowboy Curly, smitten with a (mutual) love for Amara Okereke’s Laurey. O’Grady is a vocal delight, his opening bars of ‘Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’’ stirring the Chichester audience into a foot-tapping frenzy.
He needs to find a touch more gravitas to truly weight the role – but this will likely emerge during the run. As for Okereke, this blog has long followed her youthful genius and she makes a fabulous Laurey, capturing the fierce independence of the orphaned farmer alongside the fears and vulnerabilities of a young woman. Her singing is a delight – and her dance, especially in the Dream Ballet routine, sensational.
It is in the supporting roles that Sams lays on the heavyweight talent. Josie Lawrence as the matriarchal Aunt Eller brings a wryness and compassion to the role, with a raucous wit and perfect timing that captures the older woman’s wisdom, as well as some moments of cracking comedy. The biggest plaudits of the night though rest with Emmanuel Kojo’s Jud Fry, perhaps one of the most complex characters ever penned during Broadway’s Golden Age.
Fry is a damaged lonely man, cruelly mocked by Curly in their duet ‘Pore Jud Is Daid’. That number however serves as but a warm up to Fry’s ‘Lonely Room’, a song in which Kojo delivers a bass baritone performance that is as moving as it is thrilling and ultimately terrifying. Daniel Evans (Chichester’s artistic director) unlocked Kojo’s craft in his 2015 Show Boat at Sheffield (the actor’s ‘Ol’ Man River’ still resonates) and it is hard to think of any other UK actor that could have delivered such a perfect interpretation of such a challenging part.
Comic support was well delivered by Scott Karim as pedlar Ali Hakim. Bronté Barbé as Ado Annie can sure sing ‘purdy’ but her acting through song needs a little more time – her character’s lines drip with carefully crafted gags, too many of which are wasted on the night. Neat work too from Isaac Gryn whose dance routine in Kansas City was flawless.
Indeed – the dance work throughout was magnificent and ingenious. Matt Cole has drilled his company immaculately with the previously mentioned big dance numbers being breathtaking in their ambition – with Cole producing further fine work in The Farmer And The Cowman.
Robert Jones’s set design makes fine work of the Festival Theatre’s deep jaws as Mark Henderson’s lighting segues seamlessly between the dustbowl of the farmlands and the vividness of Laurey’s nightmare.
This production delivers a Broadway treat that is rarely seen over here. While the show’s politics and nuances may be from a different era, its songs and commentary upon love and the human condition are timeless – and high above the stage Nigel Lilley’s 15-piece band makes splendid work of Richard Rodgers’ glorious melodies. Well worth a trip to the South Coast, Oklahoma! is one of the finest musicals around.
Runs until 7th SeptemberPhoto credit: Johan Persson