Chichester's Oklahoma! is the perfect confection for a hot summer season

Amara Okereke as Laurey. Photo by Johan Persson
Amara Okereke as Laurey. Photo by Johan Persson

REVIEW: Oklahoma!, Chichester Festival Theatre

From the moment the words ‘There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow’ launch the evening with crystal clarity, you know they are going to be impossible to expunge from the consciousness for the next 24 hours.

The mark of any great musical is its ability to send an audience home with a spring in their step, a smile on their face, and a host of tunes buzzing in their head with Groundhog Day repetitiveness.

They don’t get much better than this.

No musical duo in the second half of the 20th century produced those numbers with such consistent success than Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II - but it all began in 1943 with their first collaboration Oklahoma!

After a cracker of a start with Oh, What a Beautiful Morning soloed by the hero of the show cowboy Curly (Hyoie O’Grady), the flow of unforgettable tunes turns to a torrent - The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, I Can’t Say No, and People Will Say We’re in Love.

Then the tone and musical pace changes with Pore Jud is Daid as we are introduced to the anti-hero Jud Fry (Emmanuel Kojo) and the lyrics and drums already begin to beat out his fate.

If enduring musicals need songs that stick in the mind they also require plots that are so wafer thin the paying public doesn’t have to struggle a to understand a single word.

Story lines get no more basic than this - the eternal love triangle set in Oklahoma Territory, in 1906, during the birth of the new state.

In this latest revival, O’Grady is required to look good, sound great, and have a vibrant energy and warmth of personality that not only wins the heart of Laurey (Amara Okereke) but everyone watching too. He doesn’t disappoint.

For her part Okereke achieves the same with a good hint of healthy spirit.

But there are some delicious secondary performances too. Josie Lawrence as everyone’s favourite Aunt Eller and Scott Karim as a Persian peddler.

Kojo’s standout and empathetic portrayal of Jud, elevates the character from mere ‘baddie’ to a true individual with serious issues who in a more enlightened age might have received help rather than mere condemnation.

The set - a giant barn overlooking the prairies - does its job but lacks the chic and inevitably the glitz of other big festival summer musicals of the past.

The real stars are out of sight throughout - the musicians. The orchestra under musical director Nigel Lilley drives this great antique musical firmly into the 21st century with confident, shimmering aplomb.

This is a perfect confection for a hot summer season. Even the younger members of the audience entirely unfamiliar with previous incarnations were humming it at the exits. And as the show builds to its title number Oklahoma no-one is left in any doubt why Rodgers and Hammerstein were musical pioneers of genius to which all future generations can’t say no.