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STAGE REVIEW: Oklahoma!

Hyoie O'Grady as Curly and Amara Okereke as Laurey in Oklahoma! at Chichester Festival Theatre. Picture: Johan Persson - Credit: Archant

Even when staging a musical like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! there’s a perilously thin dividing line between magnificence and naffness says TIM WALKER.

A lot of the problem is that there can be few, if any, punters who haven’t now heard all of the big numbers in a sturdy old classic like this at least a trillion times, and, if not done with care, it can all too easily degenerate into something that looks and feels like a pub karaoke night.

Happily, Jeremy Sams manages to make his production feel like a lot more than a group of actors just mouthing the old lyrics and going through the motions and gives it some challenging contemporary resonance. The programme notes hint at what he’s getting at when they state that the setting is the early 1900s in “Indian Territory, later known as Oklahoma”. Emmanuel Kojo’s casting as Jud, Amara Okereke as Laurey and Scott Karim as the Persian peddler Ali give a sense of unease about who has any right to claim the land as their own.

Karim is a revelation: a young actor with a huge stage presence who can be funny and sad and frightening in short order, and it’s perhaps his success in turning what ought normally to be a relatively minor character into one quite so dominating that gives the show such an interesting new emphasis.

Hyoie O’Grady as Laurey’s love interest Curly brings something of the square-jawed, all-American hero quality of the late Howard Keel to the role, and, oh my goodness, can he belt out the big numbers like Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ and People Will Say We’re in Love. Bronté Barbé, meanwhile, brings out all of the comic potential as Ado Annie Carnes and gives a highly amusing rendering of I Cain’t Say No.

Top marks, too, to Nigel Lilley as musical director, and Robert Jones’ set design is a joy to behold, making full use of the theatre-in-the-round stage with a barnyard roof that almost reaches out over the heads of the audience. He manages with the vast sky blue backdrop to give a sense of the wonderful old Technicolor feel of the original 1950s film version of the musical.

This is a high-definition Oklahoma! which, thanks to Sams making a conscious decision to use it to get a few things he feels strongly about off his chest, is arguably a lot more than the sum of its parts.

What really can I say about Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium beyond that it feels a bit moth-eaten? I loved Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s old classic as a youngster, but it now all feels irredeemably naff. The notorious acoustics of the venue scarcely help, and, while Sheridan Smith gives it her all as the narrator, it is simply not enough to salvage it. Still, the arrival midway through of Jason Donovan in so much make-up that he looked less like Pharaoh than the late, lamented Ena Sharples from Coronation Street did afford me at least one guilty titter.