It may seem like a bold move by Chichester to stage a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first musical when the National Theatre’s 1998 revival continues to cast such a long shadow.
This is a very downbeat vision of Oklahoma!. Director John Doyle has obviously decided to concentrate on some of the darker aspects of the show - no bad thing in itself but not entirely successful in its execution.
David Farley’s plain set, basically two white sheets hung at the back of the stage, looks more suitable for an expressionist drama than a Broadway musical. Strangely, while Doyle opts to downplay the romantic elements of the central plot, there’s little attempt to play up the conflict between the cowboys and the settlers, an inherent aspect of Hammerstein’s text.
The production starts and ends with Aunt Eller sprinkling rose petals and Jud tipping apples over the stage: the petals are understandable enough for a romantic drama, but the apples? Apples of discord? Bad apples? It has the effect of making the stage look like the aftermath of an over-turned greengrocer’s cart for while.
Performance-wise, major weaknesses are Michael Xavier’s Curly - he sings excellently and certainly has the looks, but has all the charisma of a haystack - and Craige Els’ Jud, another good singer but who fails to convey the right level of menace.
The star turns are Natalie Casey’s feisty and flirtatious Ado Annie and Michael Rouse’s athletic Will Parker, his calisthenics wowing the crowd. Michael Matus’ gloriously, over-the-top ‘Persian’ pedlar Ali Hakim gathers most of the laughs, however Louise Plowright’s Aunt Eller, supposedly the linchpin of the community, seems content to fade into the background. As Laurey, Leila Benn Harris successfully captures the emotion of a woman whose stubbornness prevents her revealing her true feelings.
The ensemble work is generally good and the songs alone mean that the evening isn’t entirely wasted. But all told it's a somewhat disappointing show, particularly in the wake of recent Chichester successes Music Man and Babes in Arms .