You can throw as much social commentary and historical context into Oklahoma! as you want, but in its purest essence, it’s a love story about whether the farm girl will choose the handsome cowboy or sinister hired hand to take her to the party. There’s no use denying it- it’s the simplicity that makes it so beautiful. I always thought it was difficult to go too far wrong with it as it’s got a terrific blend of comedy and drama, a fairytale and a comic romance, and a happy ending for the survivors (well, maybe not for Ali Hakim…). However, John Doyle is so concerned with making it all edgy and minimalist (no scenery! What a concept) that the romance is completely butchered. There’s no playful teasing and one doesn’t even particularly care when Curly and Laurey finally admit their love for each other (they don’t even look at each other during the wedding- some kind of love match!). That added to the clunky staging and general lack of charisma amongst the cast makes it an all-round disappointing experience, especially as Chichester did so brilliantly with its glorious production of The Music Man last year. It’s as if they’re shying away from the fact that it’s a musical so that critics who usually dislike musicals (particularly that miserable Lyn Gardner) can praise the production’s ‘Chekhovian’ qualities. It is possible to bring out the darkness of the show without sacrificing the joy. Can’t they let the text speak for itself? Oklahoma! has a very special place in my heart as it was my companion piece to Carousel as more positive view of love and relationships when I was seriously getting into musicals in my early teens; I wanted to be Shirley Jones, and Gordon MacRae was my first proper crush. Whenever I watch the movie, I’m always astonished at the way it’s absolutely teeming with sex that went over my head when I was 13 (I’m quite astonished so much managed to get past the 1950s production codes). It’s got a bit of everything, and yet John Doyle seems determined to suppress the very heart of the show.
The staging is terribly awkward- having the whole cast constantly on stage when they weren’t needed, and Aunt Eller in her rocking chair looking on was a dreadful decision. It all looked so cluttered. The actors didn’t particularly play to the audience or to each other. Curly and Laurey were metres away from each other throughout The Surrey with the Fringe on Top and People Will Say We’re In Love involves Laurey rushing around the stage at breakneck speed. There’s no intimacy or warmth at all. The title song was the best sung number, but it had little animation or spirit. It’s also horribly over-mic’d. It’s a big theatre, but these people really ought to be able to fill it without too much help. Oh for the days when singers could actually project…
Leila Benn Harris is not a natural Laurey (she also doesn’t look right for the part- too exotic), and she isn’t helped by the terrible direction. This Laurey doesn’t even respond when Curly finally kisses her, and has a face like stone during the wedding. I’m also not the biggest fan of her Disney princess-ish voice. I prefer a fuller sound for this kind of singing (she can’t compare vocally or acting-wise to last year’s leading lady, Scarlett Strallen, who would have been perfect for Laurey). As for her frocks, I don’t mind Laurey being scruffily dressed whilst she’s doing her farm work (I realise that that’s more gritty and realistic than Shirley Jones looking gorgeous in all her pretty, spotless dresses), but for goodness sake, she needs a nice party dress. Even Josefina Gabrielle in Trevor Nunn’s production got one. At least she gets a wedding dress (and one that’s better than Caroline Sheen’s in The Light in the Piazza), but she should have been wearing lace-up boots, not anachronistic pumps- it wouldn’t have been noticable if her dress had covered her feet.
I have to single out Natalie Casey as Ado Annie for delivering the most embarassing, obnoxious performance I’ve seen so far this year. She has no singing abilities (she makes Jessie Buckley sound like Dame Joan Sutherland) and shrieked and gurned her way through her lines with a bizarre half American, half Cockney accent. Louise Plowright (any relation to Joan?) makes nothing of the role of Aunt Eller (bring back Charlotte Greenwood…), apart from waving her legs in the air so that Ali Hakim can fasten her garters (Aunt Eller would never do that. She wouldn’t have permed blonde hair either). The most successful female performance was probably Amy Ellen Richardson as Gertie, who had the best comic timing in the cast- I remember my friend loved her Cosette, so I think she really should have been cast as Laurey or Ado Annie. The men fare a bit better as Michael Xavier sings with the best voice in the cast (shame about the complete lack of chemistry with Laurey and he lacks the curls that give his character his nickname) and Craig Els is fairly menacing as Jud, but both could have been stronger under more competent direction. I wonder if it was intentional to have a Curly and Jud who looked similar. The choreography is uninspired (one of my favourite bits, the Many a New Day ballet is completely cut- Kansas City is the boys’ chance to show off, Many a New Day is the girls’ moment), and Out of My Dreams is particularly disappointing, without any real shock factor (the wedding veil covered with red rose petals that becomes Curly’s shroud- a metaphor for virginity? Never heard that one before…).
The Telegraph reading, lilac two-piece wearing audience seemed to love this. I did not. There was also a Tourette’s sufferer disturbing the first act- I know it’s very politically incorrect to complain about such things, but if they’re going to distract everyone else… Anyway, now this is how Oklahoma! should be done:
(This review refers to a performance that took place on August 13th 2009)