Chichester Festival Theatre – until 7 September 2019
I suppose it’s perverse to start at the end, but of all the aspects of Jeremy Sams’ handsome production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein crowd-pleaser, the bit that sticks, and stimulates, is that troublesome “finale ultimo” after the big faux-finale chorus of the title song.
Curly (a gloriously handsome, soaringly tuneful Hyoie O’Grady) has won Laurey, but on their wedding night Jud Fry, the lonely, angry, ugly farmhand they treat like dirt comes back drunk with a knife, and in the scuffle is killed. And on the spot, despite one farmer’s worried demurral, the local judge conducts a kangaroo court in the yard and accepts Curly’s Not Guilty plea without bothering with official process and paperwork, So off go the happy couple in a jalopy, and everyone sings “Everything’s going my way!”
Everyone white, that is. For in a bit of what must be deliberate casting, Jud (always a troubling figure) is the only black man in the cast. He was indeed drunk and threatening, but he was also poor, lonely, sacked, and had originally been led on by Laurey – she got him to drive her to the social to make Curly jealous. Then he was taunted by her lover to hang himself, in the weirdly compelling ‘Jud is daid’ scene. Frankly, given America’s racial history and recent events the breezily informal exoneration of Curly and dismissal of Jud’s corpse feels a bit, well, edgy.
Edgy and interesting; just as much as the other thoughtful casting of an actor of colour (there’s a programme note about how the Wild West settlers dispossessed the native-Americans). Sams casts Amara Okereke as Laurey and gives her a very Cherokee-heritage look with that long black plait. Well, pioneer men did sometimes marry “Indians”, and have children, so why not? The result is that for all the merriment, the production has uneasy overtones. These come to a head in the extraordinary sexual ballet of Laurey’s dream (Matt Cole’s choreography) as white-skirted whirling girls turn into raunchy burlesque tarts straddling Friesian-hide-clad cowboys, and the black threatening figure of Jud brings fire, smoke and murderous violence. Until the real Jud, anxious and spruced-up for courtship, wakes the girl and is shrilly rejected as she hurls herself at Curly.
All this adds astringency, and a good thing too , to this most brilliantly operatic of musicals, where every number rises from the story as natural as birdsong. Jud Fry has always been the dark, problematic heart of it, and without milking it, the political-racial unease helps. Not least because the early scenes felt oddly conventionally, almost disappointingly so. We have enjoyed the musical-theatre lollipops: the Surrey with a Fringe On Top and the lively nonsense of Bronté Barbé as Ado Annie having excellent fun with Scott Karim as a rather Russell-Brandish pedlar. But it’s Jud , with his loneliness and his fate that wake it up.
Emmanuel Kojo has a wonderful dark baritone, and his nightmare song in the smokehouse is riveting in contrast with the shallow, flippant rom-com figure of Curly. And Okereke herself is a perfect Laurey: the finest voice of the year, soaring effortlessly or dropping to a mesmerizing contralto richness. If the overall effect is more of a puzzle-play than a lollipop romp, so much the better. Oh, and Josie Lawrence as the vigorous Aunt Eller looks worryingly at home with two kinds of gun.
box office cft.org.uk to 7 Sept