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Oklahoma! review at Chichester Festival Theatre – ‘problematic undercurrents’

Josie Lawrence, Amara Okereke and Hyoie O'Grady in Oklahoma! at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Chichester Festival Theatre has shown a golden touch with its summer productions of classic musicals. This year it’s reviving Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!.

Robert Jones’ set is rimmed with corn and the auditorium is filled with the clucks of chickens. Hyoie O’Grady’s Curly throws the barn doors open, flooding the stage with orange light as Laurey, played by The Stage Debut Award-winner Amara Okereke, begins to sing with a voice as sweet and crisp as the apples in her basket. One number in and everything’s going Chichester’s way.

However, some aspects of Jeremy Sams’ production prove unsettling. When staged traditionally, this musical is already problematic – an ebullient celebration of impending statehood that ignores the mentions of Native Americans and African Americans in Lynn Riggs’ source play. Staged straightforwardly in 2019, it feels decidedly uncomfortable.

The body of Jud – the show’s outsider and therefore, in a non-revisionist staging, its villain – has scarcely been cleared away before the rest of the cast is singing buoyantly about the beauty of belonging.

This is all rendered even more problematic by the casting of Emmanuel Kojo, a black actor, as Jud – the surly farm hand who lives in a dark smokehouse decorated with pornographic postcards, and frightens Laurey by ‘talking wild’. It is compounded by the fact that O’Grady’s Curly is all fresh-faced charm, shyly curving his lean body away from Laurey during the consummatory reprise of People Will Say We’re in Love, and it is not alleviated by the fact Okereke herself is black.

Emily Langham and the company of Oklahoma! at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Sams’ direction is alert to the potential of violence. Josie Lawrence’s bold and brassy Aunt Eller is not churning butter in the opening scene but rather polishing a gun. A fantastic version of The Farmer and the Cowman, which careers along to live fiddle playing, incorporates as much fighting (and tug of war) as dancing.

But the production feels unresponsive to the racial tension its apparently colour-blind casting evokes. Stereotypes of black masculinity are ignited without being interrogated – in the ‘dream ballet’, the costume design for which contrasts virginal white and raunchy black, Jud ravishes Laurey before pushing Curly into the pit in a burst of hellish flames. The spectre of lynching hovers around Jud’s death, yet the direction assuages Curly and his community of responsibility as rapidly as the kangaroo court.

The cast certainly earns the triumphant tone of the final title number – particularly Bronté Barbe and Isaac Gryn as the energetically gullible Ado Annie and Will Parker. But, when the production ends, on the choreographic exclamation mark of a collective air punch, you feel it hasn’t done enough to question its own undercurrents.

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Josie Lawrence and Emmanuel Kojo star in a crowd-pleasing summer musical revival with problematic undercurrents