Review – Oklahoma!

March 14, 2013 | By More

✭✭✭✭✩   Long but strong

King’s Theatre
Wed 13 – Sat 16 March 2013

It’s seventy years since Oklahoma! first took to the Broadway stage, with its gorgeous, downbeat opening of Oh What a Beautiful Morning, sung by cowboy Curly to the butter-churning Aunt Eller.

John Whelan (Andrew Carnes), Elaine Graham (AdoAnnie Carnes) and Kevin Reid (Ali Hakim). Photo © Susan Scott & Crawford Moyes

John Whelan (Andrew Carnes), Elaine Graham (AdoAnnie Carnes) and Kevin Reid (Ali Hakim). Photo © Susan Scott & Crawford Moyes

If the musical has rarely been off the stage ever since, when the Southern Light Opera brought it back to the King’s stage last night, there was still a thrill as the opening number set off.

There is a real sense of carefree innocence to that wistful, playful interchange between Eddie McDowell’s laid-back Curly and Judith Baron’s sleepy Aunt Eller – the wise old matriarch who is ward of his girl, Laurey,

And when Anna Chidgey as Laurey arrives on stage to grow the number into a duet, you just know that these two could be never be anything but true loves, such is the way that their voices build to match each others.

But that is the beauty of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first hit. You forget that it is 1906, just before the final Indian Territories were eradicated to create Oklahoma state: here are the old and new white American ways living the good life together.

In that low-key opening there are no inklings of the tribulations that are to come. The lovers might bicker over whether he’s going to take her to the evening’s Box Social, but the threat of jealous farmhand Jud, or the complexities of Ado Annie’s love life are very far from mind.

With strong direction from Laura Jordan Reed on stage and Peter Robinson in the pit, SLO ensure that as those complexities begin to appear, they are woven right through the evening.

The truth behind his amorous intentions

It does help that the central pair are so well matched vocally. McDowell brings great phrasing to his lines and a bright sense of adventure to his acting performance. Chidgey is less of a natural actor, but her voice soars beautifully through the higher part of her register.

Anna Chidgey (centre, Laurey) with the dance troupe in Many A New Day. Photo © Susan Scott & Crawford Moyes

Anna Chidgey (centre, Laurey) with the dance troupe in Many A New Day. Photo © Susan Scott & Crawford Moyes

And if you didn’t know that they were made for each other through the opening number and the ensuing banter of The Surrey With the Fringe on Top, then there is absolutely no doubt about it in People Will Say We Are in Love.

As the fly in their particular ointment, Laurence Aitken is a menacing, dark-hearted Jud Fry. Aitken doesn’t have the strongest of voices, but he has real presence on stage and an ability to make up for any vocal weakness with his sheer performance of a song.

The smokehouse scene between Curly and Jud, with Curly’s mocking Pore Jud is Daid followed by Jud’s Lonely Room, take the production to a point where you worry for the safety of that central pairing.

That darkness is well tempered by the comic romances of Elaine Graham’s sprightly, loud-voiced Ado Annie, the girl who Can’t Say No. On the one hand she has dim but dutiful cowboy Will (an excellent Alan Gow), just back from Kansas with $50 in his pocket – enough to make Ado Annie’s gun-totting dad, (John Whelan) grant her hand in marriage.

Sitting pretty in Ado Annie’s other hand is the travelling tinker Ali Hakim. Kevin Reid has great fun with the role, never leaving any doubt as to the truth behind his amorous intentions. The interplay between all three is excellent, while Reid has the ability to turn the charm on whoever Hakim is talking to.

With the principals all well played, there is plenty for SLO’s large chorus and dance troupe to get into. The big ensemble numbers are worked well into the plot – with the tricky Act II mass fight sequences that underpin The Farmer and the Cowman particularly well thought through and choreographed.

And when it comes to choreography, the long – some say overlong – dream ballet sequence that closes out Act I is given a good showing. It’s not utterly perfect, but it is a visually satisfying piece of work which adds to the storytelling as it explores Laurey’s romantic dilemmas, mixed up with Jud’s own fantasies.

The mechanics of it all are smoothly done too, with a particularly neat switch as dancer Jenny O’Neill takes over the role of Laurey for the dream sequence.

Good stuff, but seventy years on and this is showing its age. Not just with its gender politics, but also with its structure and timing. At a little over three hours before the big encore of the title number, it is a long night out. But it is a thoroughly satisfying one.

Running time 3 hours 5 mins.
Run ends Saturday 16 march 2013.
Full details on the SLO website: www.southernlightopera.co.uk

ENDS

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