Friday, 31 August 2018

REVIEW: Oklahoma! at the Gordon Craig Theatre


“Oklahoma!” was written in 1943 and celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. It is part of an extraordinary canon of work by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II which includes the “King and I”, so brilliantly recently staged at the Palladium, “South Pacific”, “Sound of Music”, and “Carousel “. They have some of the best scores ever written and you go into the theatre humming their famous tunes but “Oklahoma! “ is the most heavily rooted in a past American culture set in 1906 at the birth of the state of Oklahoma.

You are reminded immediately during the overture of the shows credentials. The stage is beautifully set with Aunt Eller’s wooden house stage right, the back of Jud Fry’s smokehouse stage left and centre stage the skyline dominated by a prairie wind pump and a large blue moon. As the 16 piece band plays the Overture’s wonderful tunes the light changes and we see the sun rise over the farmyard. It is a delightful scene setter by lighting designer Pete Kramer and sets from Scenic Projects. It leads seamlessly into the opening number “Oh, what a beautiful morning “as Curley enters. Joshua Gannon has a rich clear voice with excellent diction and delivers every one of his numbers wonderfully. He follows this up with two of the other great numbers in the show, “Surrey with a fringe on top” and “People will say we are in love” opposite a charming Carrie Sutton as Laurey.

The plot is relatively simple with three love stories intertwined. The men Curley, Will Parker, Ali Hakim and Jud Fry are seeking dates for the box social and three women are the centre of their attention, Laurey , Ado Annie Carnes and Gertie Cummings ( who has a horrendous horse like laugh). The men’s lack of social skills complicates the process and causes confusion and upset in the community. It is a very dated feeling storyline made worse by the unfortunate story development in “Poor Jud is dead” in which Curley tries to persuade Jud who has mental health issues, to commit suicide by hanging himself. It was bought into sharp contrast by the poster in the foyer of the theatre for someone raising awareness for World Suicide Prevention day!

All the performers have fine voices and belt out the great tunes with energy and enjoyment but not all are totally convincing in the portrayal of the characters seeming to concentrate too hard on movement so at times it felt mechanical rather than natural although this may have been Gala night nerves. They are at the best in the big set piece numbers like the rousing title song Oklahoma which closes the show.

I particularly liked Lisa Bridge as Ado Annie who has great fun in her numbers of “I cain’t say no” and “All Er Nuthin” and a very youthful looking Aunt Eller played by Alice Redmond. But I found Connor Ewing’s Jud not threatening or disturbed enough , just a lonely sad man who should have got the sympathy of the others and not been ostracised and Jeremy Batt’s Will too light and frivolous to be a cowboy.

The choreography by Khiley Williams was good especially in the long ballet dream sequence which ends Act 1 which was also excellently lit. However it does elongate the first half to 90 minutes which at times felt too long. The second half opens with a lively “the Farmer and the Cowman” but it was difficult to distinguish the cowmen from the farmers and some of the ensemble of seven men’s timing was off in their movements.

Catherine Lomas as Director and Rob Scott as musical director have done a fine job with this 75thanniversary traditional production which is wonderfully set beautifully sung and sounds amazing. It great to hear these classic songs again on stage and the Gala Night audience loved the show and its good comedy moments. However the musical is feeling dated and to last another 75 years of regular performance it needs a refresh in its staging and characterisations.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★

Seats: stalls row N | Price of Ticket: £25
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