In the darkest days of World War II, theatre audiences experienced two magical musicals that still endure over 70 years later.
IN 1942 came the joyful escapism of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. And a year later, they got the first collaboration by Rogers and Hammerstein- the frontier Wild West show Oklahoma.
Set in 1906 when Oklahoma was in ‘Indian territory’ before it became a State of the Union, Jeremy Sams’ production has heavy topical relevance – the sense of “belonging” amongst disadvantaged poor Americans, the mistrust, hatred and racism towards “outsiders” and a kind of gun-toting frontier law enforcement which comes out right in the story – but only just.
Sams has given it added edge by casting actors of colour in three of the leads – Amara Okereke as the love-lorn Lauren, Emmanuel Kojo as the tormented, lonely Jud Fry, and Scott Karim as the Persian pedlars Ali Hakim. The blatant prejudice of the other characters towards Jud is only partially justified by his behaviour and he is no doubt a nasty piece of work, but the sarcastic racist mocking of him by the otherwise nice-guy Curly is shocking.
Central to the storyline is the strong-willed, jovial matriarch Aunt Eller, toting guns and rifles and generally interfering in the course of true love. Josie Lawrence plays it with great gusto and is full-throated in her few singing sections.
Chichester this season seems to have settled on shows with feisty, independent women and there are at least three of them in this show – Aunt Eller, Lauren and the nymphomaniac Ado Annie, played delightfully squeakily by Bronte Barbe.
Singing is superb throughout, and Hyoie O’ Grady plays Curly with a light pleasantness that is very endearing. His voice is pure and clear, and Amara as Lauren soars high above the rest with an easy but powerful voice.
Choreographer Matt Cole gets the best out of his ensemble, with energetic, balletic movements, which owe a great deal to the original 1940’s choreography of Agnes de Mille.
The mood for the show is set with the opening few notes of Oh What a Beautiful Morning, as Curly slides open the huge barn doors at the back of the spacious open set and lets golden dawn sunlight in.
Musical director Nigel Lilley produces a lush and rich sound from his musicians and the balance between voice and accompaniment is always peerless.
If some of the themes seem dated and awkward to us, Sams’ young cast pack a heavyweight punch throughout that makes us forget .
I predict it will follow other Chichester musicals into a well-deserved West End slot. It’s a 5 – star summertime hit.
Oklahoma runs at the Chichester Festival Theatre until September 7.
Review by Brian Butler