Saturday, 31 August 2019

Theatre Review: Oklahoma!

Thinking about it, for someone who is as big of a musicals fan as I am I have seen surprisingly little Rogers and Hammerstein. Almost none in fact. Weird.

One exception to this, thanks to the excellent folk at Chichester Festival, is now Oklahoma! (Yes I’m going to be sticking faithfully to the correct punctuation. Yes it is annoying.) As I point out every year, Chichester is known for its musicals. They’re always an absolute joy to watch. Even the ones where I haven’t actually enjoyed the musical (Me and My Girl last year being a classic example) you can never fault the production. I was fully hyped to see their take on something as big and classic and Broadway with a capital B-R-O-A-D-W-A-Y as Oklahoma!

A small piece of heresy to begin with: as a musical, I didn’t actually particularly rate Oklahoma! I expect the theatre police will be here to arrest me shortly, but it’s true. Yes it has some amazing individual songs and yes it is unexpectedly and enjoyably dark but I found the first act in particular dragged through some saggy plotting, most of the characters are a bit blah (technical term) and I’m not really ok with the lazy stereotype on legs that is the character of travelling ‘Persian’ salesman Ali Hakim. On this latter point, this is the one area where I take issue with the production, as director Jeremy Sams could have done something to portray this character differently, dialling down the ‘it was ok in the 1930s’ nonsense whilst still keeping Ali Hakim as the comic relief character. In the context of the rest of the production, with its twenty first century casting and updated, gun toting take on Aunt Eller, I find it weird that this wasn’t done. 

That said, those amazing individual songs man! You cannot really argue with a score that contains Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’ can you? The Farmer and The Cowman has been stuck in my head for almost literally a fortnight. Out Of My Dreams remains one of my favourite musical theatre songs that I had to learn for a singing exam (a surprisingly populous category). And of course the title song is an absolute bop. For all my woke moaning and irritation at some of the last series of Game of Thrones style lazy and convenient plotting, this show is a musical theatre classic for a reason.

Any show with a number of Big Songs is manna from heaven for Team Chichester of course. Every year their musicals excel at production numbers and this year is happily no exception. In fact, and I’m sure I’ve made this observation before too, I would go so far as to argue that the production numbers are the real star in this show. Choreographer Matt Cole’s work is utterly brilliant: modern but unashamedly cowboy and unashamedly Broadway too. The Dream Ballet at the end of act one and the Farmer/Cowman sequence at the beginning of act two in particular are proper hair on the back of the neck raising stuff. The predominantly very young cast perform them brilliantly too. Flicking through the programme it was amazing to see so many people making their professional debuts or with just a couple of credits. Plenty of faces I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of in the future. 

Modern but cowboy and Broadway is actually a pretty good summary of all of this production. Jeremy Sams has got this approach almost exactly right I think. I loved some of the subtle modernising that’s gone on, like having Aunt Eller cleaning her gun instead of churning butter when we first meet her. I loved the diverse cast too. Having two of the three lead characters played by actors of colour is not common in musicals, much less musicals at Chichester, and so is depressingly worthy of note. Having Jud Fry, a character about whose imaged hanging the other leading man sings a whole song, played by an actor of colour in particular gave the production an edge it wouldn’t otherwise have (and makes the Ali Hakim stuff all the more incongruous). The production is witty and pacey and looks great too, thanks to Robert Jones’ adaptable set and Mark Henderson’s atmospheric lighting. David Cullen orchestrations sound incredible too. This is definitely a classic Oklahoma! But it’s also a very modern one. 

The fact that the production numbers and so the ensemble are my stars notwithstanding, it is also worth mentioning the actual stars because they are brilliant. Relative newcomers Hyoie O’Grady and Amara Okereke play Curly and Laurey and are both fabulous. Fresh faced, naive, hopeful, full of longing and with silky smooth vocals to die for. Okereke in particular is also a beautiful dancer. Josie Lawrence is a joy as Aunt Eller, I just wish she had more to do. Emmanuel Kojo has been excellent in everything I’ve ever seen him in (which given his resume includes The Young Vic’s brilliant The Scottsboro Boysand Sheffield Crucible’s glorious Showboatisn’t that surprising) and is a disturbing but sympathetic Jud, making more than the most of an often pretty thankless part. Isaac Gryn is a wonderfully earnest Will Parker and a fabulous dancer. I could go on. Everyone is brilliant. And they all look like they’re having a laugh too, which always helps. 

My heretical opinions on Oklahoma! as a musical aside, this is a really enjoyable and beautifully realised production, maintaining Chichester’s excellent record as a producer of musicals. I wouldn’t be surprised if a West End transfer follows - and if it does it’s highly worth getting tickets. 

Oklahoma! is in the Festival Theatre at Chichester until 7th September.

I sat in G76 - side view, but great view - and paid £18.