Review: Oklahoma! (Chichester Festival Theatre)

Jeremy Sams directs a new revival of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical

The cast of Oklahoma!
The cast of Oklahoma!
© Johan Persson

It's funny to think that, when they were alive, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II weren't even close friends. Often working sometimes hundreds of miles away from one another, they now share a Wikipedia entry and are revered for their track record of top-notch musical output.

1943's Oklahoma!, their first collaboration together, showed a sign of things to come – playful back-and-forth ballads between young lovers hinting at Sound of Music's "16 Going on 17", discussions about suicide that formed the backbone of Carousel, or the awkward Asian stereotyping that encapsulated The King and I.

Jeremy Sams' new Chichester Festival Theatre production of the now well over 70 years-old classic largely plays things straight-laced and leather booted. The rustic quaintness and straw-stuffed woodiness of Robert Jones' set houses the romantic woes of young farmhand Laurey, living with her bombastic soul-of-any-party Aunt Eller. Laurey has two boys pining after her and needs to make a decision.

Sams' production, while certainly not as radical as the Tony Award-winning production that caused many a furrowed brow on Broadway (sadly no chilli or cornbread is distributed at the start of this show), is furnished with subtler touches. There's the almost constant presence of guns: brandished, coveted, oiled and clenched so frequently you can almost feel Chekhov sweating. The piece is set in a frontier world where the rule of law goes as far as a group consensus.

Hyoie O'Grady has all the floppy-haired machismo and singing chops to make for a cool and charismatic young lover Curly, but it's Amara Okereke that excels as Laurey – pensive and stern but wishful and willing to indulge a few fantasies. Her boggling dream at the end of act one, featuring groomsmen dressed as cows and sex-craving couples sporting lacy corsets (costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel and supervisor Debbie Bennett throwing everything at the wall), gives an insight into the mind of a romantic teenager growing up on the fringes of a young new country.

She's helped by a scenery chomping Josie Lawrence having all the fun in the world as Aunt Eller, and Emmanuel Kojo's haunted Jud turns a warped sense of entitlement into obsessive and destructive adoration. Kojo becomes one of the show's most absorbing presences – not a brutish baddie but a tortured soul, whose obsessions have made him a dangerous man. Watching Curly glibly try to convince Jud that taking his own life may be beneficial leaves an oddly conflicting sensation.

But the real winner is Matt Cole's choreography, channelling all the best bits of Agnes de Mille. Two stand-out showstoppers – "Dream Ballet" and "The Farmer and The Cowman" – deliciously sandwich the interval, while Isaac Gryn delivers a masterclass in lassoing in "Kansas City". Euphoria, humour and tension all coexist as the piece spirals towards a sad climax.

A lot of the show has, inevitably, become dated (especially the B-plot featuring Ado Annie and her infatuation with peddler Ali Hakim) but the quiet radicalism of Rodger's and Hammerstein's musical is left to speak for itself. Set in 1906, just before Oklahoma achieved statehood, it sees characters dream of a dawning future, desperately loving those they can't, and actively ignoring misdeeds for the sake of a brighter tomorrow. It's a perplexing conclusion, and, when tragedy strikes, Sams lets the crickets sing out more than the cast.