A sunshiny production that illuminates the darker side of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s pioneering musical
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s first great collaboration was a sensation when it premiered in in New York in 1943 at the height of World War II. The duo of upper middle-class Jewish New Yorkers hit a nerve when they reimagined Lynn Rigg’s 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs to fulfil a commission from the Theatre Guild to create a “folk opera”. The resulting musical broke new ground, allowing the drama to dictate lyric and musical choices, placing songs in context. Oklahoma! is pioneering in more than one sense, taking place against the background of the carving out of the new state from “Indian Territory” on the eve of the statehood granted in 1907. Even the name is Native American, from the Choctaw words ‘okla humma’, meaning red people – named by a Choctaw chief for his own people during treaty negotiations.
So there is an irony in the words of the title number: “We know we belong to the land / And the land we belong to is grand!” No Native Americans appear in this story of guys and gals circling each other in a hormone-fuelled mating dance. And though at first sight it may be suffused with that “bright golden haze on the meadow”, there are dark and transgressive undertones too. Prototype all-American boy Curly is shyly courting local belle Laurey, but she has another, more troubled suitor. Jud the farm hand is a loner living in a shack, where he obsesses about Laurey, surrounded by pornographic postcards supplied by smooth talking, dodgy Persian peddler Ali Hakim – who in turn is one of the men who’s caught the eye of Ado Annie, the girl who “just cain’t say no”. Her most ardent suitor, who won’t take no for an answer, is champion lassoist Will Parker. Thus the stage is set for triumph and disaster, for the burgeoning of love and statehood, at too high a price for some.
At first sight, in Jeremy Sams’ breathtaking whirlwind of a production, that “bright golden haze” suffuses Robert Jones’ set of yellow corn tufts and rust-brown wooden floor, beams and slats, dazzlingly lit by Mark Henderson. But even as Hyoie O’Grady’s tall, golden-haired, golden-voiced Curly sings that famous opening line, Josie Lawrence’s formidable über materfamilias Aunt Eller sits centre stage expertly cleaning a gun, rather than churning butter as in the original stage direction. Welcome to the Wild West, where gun totin’ guys are matched by pistol packin’ gals to rival Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane. Several times the audience jumps as a shot rings out (usually in sheer ebullience, but it makes you consider those US gun laws).
Though there’s apparently no contest for Amara Okereke’s passionate, sweet-voiced Laurey between Curly and Emmanuel Kojo’s brooding Jud, Curly’s hesitant awkwardness coupled with Laurey’s own bashfulness, leads to enough misunderstanding for her to accept Jud’s invitation to accompany her to that night’s social dance. Even so, the sinister turn that Curly’s visit to Jud’s shack takes, as he urges the farm hand to consider hanging himself to get the sympathy of the locals who shun him, is a shocking step too far; and the fascination of both men with those pornographic postcards more than hints at the dark undercurrent of life on the prairie.
All this is crowned by Laurey’s drug-induced fantasy (courtesy of a “magic potion” from the less than scrupulous Hakim), in which the dark visions of her id are acted out by the chorus in a disturbing, sexualised dream ballet. The men are in piebald costumes that imply they too are ‘livestock’. The girls are in white frilly gowns with glimpses of black scanties beneath (costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel) that come into their own when the vision takes a turn towards sleaze and a shocking climax to the first half, as Laurey hallucinates a nightmare bridal bed with the wrong suitor.
Matt Cole’s choreography is stunning throughout, and the outstanding chorus, every member of which could sing a solo role in a heartbeat, dance up a storm. The testosterone-fuelled exuberance of the men, leaping on and off barrels, recalls the wedding dances Cole choreographed for the men of the shtetl in the current West End transfer of Fiddler of the Roof, a nice illustration of the thesis that young men are the same the world over.
Is casting of the excellent Emmanuel Kojo as Jud colour blind or making a point? I guess if Laurey was as blonde as Curly, it might have felt rather more pointed, and indeed awkward, but either way, it decisively confirms the unfortunate Jud’s place as the outsider.
There is delightful support from that other couple circling each other, Bronté Barbé’s boy-crazy Ado Annie and Isaac Gryn’s wonderfully watchable Will Parker (displaying a charisma inherited perhaps from his grandfather, Rabbi Hugo Gryn). And Scott Karim’s Hakim has an exotic flamboyance that makes him as convincing a “snapper up of unconsidered trifles” as Autolycus, Shakespeare’s wily hucster in The Winter’s Tale.
Delighted summer audiences will bask in the glittering glow of Sams’ production, enjoying his company’s terrific rendering of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s glorious book and score, while all the time appreciating its mindfulness of the darker side of frontier life.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Johan Persson
Oklahoma! runs until Saturday 7 September. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Wed & Sat only, plus some Thu). £10-£55. Chichester Festival Theatre, West Sussex, PO19 7LY. 01243 781 312. www.cft.org.uk