Josie Lawrence as Aunt Eller with members of the company in OKLAHOMA! at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
This fine musical can’t fail. All those familiar tunes and a powerful, realistic love story set against the background of Oklahoma joining the Union and becoming State in 1907, ensure that it works every time.
In this pleasant revival of Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1943 masterpiece one of the leading stars is Mark Henderson’s lighting design. From the moment the back screens are pushed back to let the sunlight in during the opening Oh What a Beautiful Morning number to the evening at the party we are firmly in the Sooner State. There’s an imaginatively effective sound design from Paul Groothuis too. Every time a gun fires the birds panic and settle. During the quieter outdoor scenes you can hear insects. It couldn’t be more atmospheric. And director, Jeremy Sams makes good use of the theatre’s big thrust stage.
So there we are in this (then) remote farming community where Curly (Hyoie O’Grady – splendid tenor voice and attractive manner – I’d have married him too) is in love with Amara Okereke’s Laurie. She wants him too but is playing hard to get. And troubled, dangerous Jud Fry (Emmanuel Kojo has ruthless designs on her.
Okereke growls, scowls, grins, longs, lingers and sings like a nightingale. She is one of those actors who can light up the stage with a single smile. Josie Lawrence turns in a fine performance as the village matriarch, Aunt Ella and the sub plot hanging on pedlar Ali Hakim’s (Scott Karim) disinclination to marry is very funny. Karim is (as in last year’s The Country Wife) lithely watchable. He can make even a rueful shoulder shrug funny.
Kojo is outstanding as Jud Fry. He has a superb bass singing voice and manages to evoke sympathy even as he plots to kill. He isn’t, by any means a straightforward “villain”and Kojo’s performance brings out all the complexity. I am, however, slightly uneasy about the casting of a black man as the “bad” man in a predominantly white cast. It feels like a lazy stereotype although I can’t over emphasise how good he is.
Matt Cole’s choreography is slick and exciting especially during the hoedown and the nightmare sequence. And I really enjoyed the the work of the magnificent orchestra under Nigel Lilley as MD. Nice touch to put whizzy fiddler, Charlie Brown on stage during the hoedown too.
Emmanuel Kojo as Jud Fry with members of the company in OKLAHOMA! at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson