BWW Review: OKLAHOMA!, Chichester Festival Theatre
Has any musical ever enjoyed so iconic an opening? Cute cowboy Curly croons, "Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'" and we're right there, peeking through the elephant eye-high corn in the golden haze - the land is grand indeed. But, well - see below...
As ever at Chichester Festival Theatre, there's plenty of West End pizzazz about their big summer show, Robert Jones's handsome set (and it needs to be on a stage nearly as vast as the plains of the Midwest) a fine platform for some tremendous set-pieces.
None better than the second act opener, "The Farmer and The Cowman" - choreographer Matt Cole's barnstormin' barn dance (with a whiff of Sharks vs Jets), topping a psychologically traumatic dream ballet sequence that borrowed a little from Bob Fosse. Roll in songs with Rodgers and Hammerstein's signature simplicity that unpeels into so many levels of complexity, and you've a surefire hit!
In a largely young cast still settling into the run, there's a touch of nerves still to be worked through, but I suspect they'll loosen up in time. Handsome chap in chaps, Hyoie O'Grady, makes a splendid Curly, his sweet voice suited to the love songs as much as the belters. Bronté Barbé judges "I Cain't Say No" perfectly too - no easy trick with a song so familiar that it could easily topple into parody. Josie Lawrence holds the show (and the settlement) together as Aunt Eller, keepin' the young 'uns in line with plenty of wit and wisdom.
The standout performance comes from Emmanuel Kojo, whose electrifying "Lonely Room" sent chills down the spine both with its incipient menace and with its magnificent singing. His Jud Fry, rival of Curly for the hand of Laurey (Amara Okereke), is a loner with a grudge and gun, and that's never a combination that turns out well.
I've wrestled for some time now with director Jeremy Sams' decision to cast Black actor Kojo as Jud. On the one hand, it's just colourblind casting - Kojo is brilliant in the role - but on the other....
The barn dance (a "Box Social") is held to raise funds for a new schoolhouse and Jud bids furiously against Curly for Laurey's basket of comestibles - and the lunch date that comes with it. But any children Jud would have had with Laurey (another piece of colourblind casting, but not problematic) would not have gone to the school.
That law was enacted on statehood being granted to Oklahoma in 1907 (the backdrop to the show), and it would be half a century before the Civil Rights movement began to dismantle the segregationist Jim Crow laws.
As for the production's unabashed joyous conclusion? It sent us all out into oh, what a beautiful evening, with a song in our hearts - but, just a week ago, the police officers whose chokehold led to Eric Garner's death (the incident that inspired the "I Can't Breathe" movement) were told that they would not face any federal charges. A bit like Curly.
I felt the words "plus ça change" come into my head, as I hummed those timeless tunes on the way home.
Photo Johan Persson