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Oklahoma! at Chichester

Chichester's big new summer musical is a cowboy-themed classic

You know you’ll be getting a quality production when you go to see Chichester Festival Theatre’s big summer musical. In terms of dance, vocals and sheer energy, the latest high-kicking, petticoat-flying, boot stomping show – Oklahoma! – doesn’t disappoint.

Photo by Johan Persson

The summer show is usually a revival of an old-fashioned classic. Half a Sixpence, and Singin’ in the Rain are among former Chichester productions to transfer to the West End and beyond.

The subject matter this time however may not be as crowd-pleasing. After last year’s warm-hearted, moral tale – Me & My Girl, Oklahoma! is quite a contrast.

Curly and Laurey Photo by Johan Persson

On the surface it’s a story of two love triangles. Two men vie for the affection of hard-to-get farm girl Laurey, while her over-keen friend Ado Annie somehow gets herself engaged to both long-term sweetheart Will and commitment-phobic visiting pedlar Ali.

Ali and Ado Annie. Photo by Johan Persson

The show however contains some dark themes including attempted murder and the perceived threat of sexual violence. Add in oblique references to porn, drug use and brothels, besides on-stage use of guns and knives and you may think twice about taking children.

It also doesn’t date well. The Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was released over 75 years ago.  The otherwise enjoyable comedy sub-plot hinges on a dowry and, with the exception of gun-toting Aunt Eller – finely played by a gruff Josie Lawrence, the female characters are powerful only in toying with men’s affections.

Josie Lawrence as Aunt Eller. Photo by Johan Persson

The part that really caused me concern however was when hero Curly semi-seriously tried to coerce his love rival into killing himself. He gave him motives and detailed practical tips before the pair dueted on the darkly comic Pore Jud is Daid about the posthumous appreciation Jud might receive.

In these days of greater sensitivity about mental health and recent high profile cases of teens bullied into suicide I personally felt this section should have been dropped or heavily modified.

Emmanuel Kojo as Jud. Photo by Johan Persson

The fact the poor, shady character of Jud, ostracised before any actual wrong-doing, is the only black male lead in this production makes it all the more uncomfortable, giving the story tones of racism that are left unresolved. His narrative thread ends tragically and frivolity swiftly resumes in an all too abrupt ending.

Setting aside these reservations, the cast and crew did an excellent job.

The plaintive solo Lonely Room from Emmanuel Kojo as Jud was a stand out as were the jumps and lasso tricks of Will played by Isaac Gryn (who is only just about to graduate!) Amara Okereke gave surprisingly mature operatic vocals to fresh-faced Laurey and the ensemble cast put huge energy into some clever choreography and hit plenty of high notes.

Isaac Gryn as Will. Photo by Johan Persson

Warm lighting and a stage fringed with corn set the mood for a territory at the dawn of becoming a State and while the staging for the most part was unadventurous, a troubled dream sequence made spectacular (and not a little scary) use of a swing, trap doors and flaming special effects.

The hits? Well even never having seen the show before I recognised Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’, I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say ‘No’, Oklahoma and The Surrey with A Fringe on Top (the last admittedly from the When Harry Met Sally embarrassing karaoke scene). My friend meanwhile assured me that People Will Say We’re in Love – the sweetly executed duet between verbally sparing Curly and Laurey – is a wedding anniversary favourite.

Laurey with ‘girl who can’t say “no”‘ Ado Annie. Photo by Johan Persson

For me this revival didn’t rework an old show enough (interestingly a current Broadway production deliberately highlights the play’s more disturbing themes for a modern audience). But there’s no doubting it’s a production full of energy and excellent performances and if you want a true to the original Oklahoma you won’t be disappointed.

Oklahoma! is at Chichester Festival Theatre, until 7 Sept. Tickets are from £10. cft.org.uk

 

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