It's been pointed out that the Chichester Festival production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's first complete show, Oklahoma!, has suffered by being staged while Trevor Nunn's staging at the National Theatre is still fresh in many people's memories (and on DVD).
But for me, John Doyle's new version looks at the piece innovatively in some respects. He stresses Aunt Eller's unifying presence in the unstable Oklahoma community by having her onstage as a silent but omniscient figure almost throughout, reacting emotionally to the plot's events. As performed by Louise Plowright, this works really well for me, since it tallies with the way in which she influences the behaviour of most of her fellow characters: it's she who calms the brawl in 'The Farmer and the Cowman' and prevents Jud Fry from murdering Curly on his first attempt, for instance. The latter episode provides the production's most chilling moment, as Doyle has the lights dimmed (excellently designed by Tim Mitchell) and a creepy, horror-movie atmosphere is created until Aunt Eller interrupts.
Another great piece of staging involves 'Poor Jud is Dead', the number where Curly incites Jud to commit suicide. The entire cast line up on stage in the shadows, with their hats on, as if they're at Jud's funeral, thereby intensifying the images that Curly's using to manipulate him. There are other little touches that work well, too, such as the indication of the harvest with leaves strewn on the floor: the onset of the autumn implies time passing and the dawn of a new era as the state of Oklahoma is solidified, an event of social importance to the community that Doyle goes to great lengths to stress. It was also quite fun to have Ali Hakim (a talented Michael Matus) played as a New York Jew who removes his fake moustache when chatting to Jud; it makes the potions sold by the peddler more explicitly fake, thereby showing how superstition rules the rural people depicted in the show.
Other aspects are disappointing, however. Perhaps it was just the performance I saw, but the actual death of Jud was badly handled and was unconvincing. More seriously, though, the real problem with the show is the balance of the casting. Whereas the chemistry between the leads in the NT production of 1998 was constantly fiery, here the actors somehow don't quite work together. Michael Xavier sings the role of Curly better than Hugh Jackman did, but he lacks the masculinity, the virility of the cowboy. Somehow, I didn't totally believe in his actions, and it was difficult to accept that he'd win the fight with Craige Els' supber Jud Fry. Leila Benn Harris' Laurey, meanwhile, is just too cold, so she doesn't really seem to be moved by Curly's love for her, and she's not quite got the goods vocally. Meanwhile, Natalie Casey needs to be a lot more girly and sweet as Ado Annie, and I thought her singing was barely adequate in places. Michael Rouse is a fine Will Parker, but again the problem is that he doesn't quite match Casey. Individually, three of them would probably be fine in a different production, and there are some great moments in the show, but together they don't really gel.
It's a shame, because Doyle's production is elegant in David Farley's designs; whilst not lavish, the sets are evocative enough. And in Jonathan Tunick, Sondheim's regular collaborator, Chichester has managed to employ one of the finest orchestrators of all time, with fourteen musicians sounding absolutely wonderful. So there are plenty of reasons to go and see the show, even if many of us have seen more powerful renditions of the material.
Photos credits: Tristram Kenton
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