Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Oklahoma - Chichester Festival Theatre

Music: Richard Rodgers
Book & Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Director: John Doyle
Choreographer: Nikki Woollaston
Reviewer: John Roberts

There’s something special taking place in Chichester’s Festival Theatre this summer, this latestrevival of Rodger and Hammerstein’s take on the 1900’s novel Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs is an absolute joy from start to finish.

John Doyle has got himself a name as a pioneer of directing Actor Musician shows, perhaps this is more to do with where he has directed such shows in the past, Wilton’s Musical Hall and The Watermill are hardly spaces that allow you to have a full scale production, but with this production he has a sublime sounding full orchestra aptly directed by Catherine Jayes at his disposal.

Over the years we have come to expect something special from Chichester’s summer musical and this is now different, but what makes this production stand head over heels of previous years? The answer lies in Doyles approach, strip the show of everything, start with the bare essentials (the actors) and don’t apply anything else unless it is absolutely vital.

This is followed through with the set, the stark and open stage is cladded with a raked wooden floor with two mottled sheets providing the backdrop hung in such a way that it really makes the actors feel they are walking in from the distant, making the stage feel even more barren and open than ever before, but this clever stage design by David Farley only helps to add to your vision of the sweeping dustbowl of Oklahoma landscape.

Not only is the set beautiful to look at but this has to be one of the best looking casts in the country. The men, with their rugged and macho looks and strong physical presence. The women with their to die for figures and a glint of sexual appetite in their eyes only help to provide to the enjoyment.

Oklahoma’s strength lies in its ensemble telling of the narrative, Doyle has given a Brechtian twist to the production, rarely giving the cast a chance to leave the stage but always be in observance to the action that is taking place in their town, only disbanding when the darker elements of the story need it.
Michael Xavier brings a warm and likable Curley, the audience warming to his silky smooth voice and cheeky smile from the off and Leila Benn Harris as love interest Laurey continues pushing her career with a fantastic performance it wont be too long before we see her back on the West End stage.

But it is the performances of Craig Els as Jud and Natalie Casey that really come and steal the show. Casey has always had the ability to make this reviewer smile, she oozes stage presence and has more facial expressions than one could think is humanly possible. Casey gives a highly energetic and comedic performance and although her voice isn’t the strongest in the company it doesn’t matter for what she brings to the production in every other department more than makes up for it! Els is stunning, such a departure from previous west end production of Never Forget, giving Jud such a strong penetrative stare that could make even the biggest of men run away add to that his strong earthy powerhouse vocals and this is an award winning performance.

Doyle has reinvented Oklahoma with this stark but wonderful production, bringing to the forefront the relationships of those in the small community and bring in the high octane choreography by Nikki Woollaston which adds just enough traditional elements to make this a show that one won’t forget in a while, and one that should be on your to see list as soon as possible.

Photos: Tristram Kenton

Oklahoma runs at CFT until Sat 29th August
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