Oklahoma!

 

Monday 22 June 2009, The Chichester Festival Theatre

 

review by Emma Shane

© July 2009

 

This is an unusual production of a classic musical, but then with John Doyle directing it was never going to be exactly ordinary, though by his standards it is relatively conventional productions, for example we do have a proper orchestra, positioned (as is usual at Chichester) in the gallery above the stage. The programme notes also provide a hint that things are going to be different. An essay by Jason Carr, one of best contemporary composers-lyricists (long associated with The Chichester Festival Theatre), sets the scene, including a fascinate paraphrase of Ethan Mordden, noting that any of the showís leading roles can be a star, not something I had ever thought of, but it turns out to be prophetic.

The show opens, as one might expect, with Aunt Eller being the first character on stage, but here John Doyle has departed from the norm, as instead of churning butter, Louise Plowright, in stockinged feet, steps out on stage, almost skips on, tossing falling leaves from her apron pocket about the stage. She is wearing a long skirt, and blouse, with a black waistcoat (possible a mans waistcoat) and a slough felt hat on her mane of blond curls, a long white waist-apron is tied round her waist. Her boots, tied together with their laces are slung around her neck.She is swiftly, momentarily followed by Craig Eels (as Jud) with a crate of apples, which he tips so they roll over the stage, then he exits. Soon we hear the classic bit of Michael Xavier as Curly singing off-stage Oh What A Beautiful Morning. He sings decently, of course it is a classic song, he does it perfectly well, though: Alfred Drake, Howard Keel, Gordon McRae and Hugh Jackman are very tough acts to follow, which is perhaps why his singing of this number doesnít stand out as singing, although the song sets the scene perfectly well. Very soon the rest of the company, headed by Alex Giannini asAndrew Carnes enter, one of them, possibly Darragh OíLeary carries Aunt Ellerís rocking chair slung over his shoulder, several of the other company members also carry on various props. There is no proper scenery, just a couple of off-white sheets. Reminiscent perhaps of how out on the frontier folk had to make do, and if in your cabin you didnít have room for walls to separate your bedrooms, you might well make do with hanging up some old sheets round your beds. The rocking chair is placed in the centre of the stage, and Louise Plowright takes her place sitting in it, having first removed her boots from around her neck, she is now carrying them in her hands. First Curly talks with Aunt Eller, and presently Laurey enters with her tub of washing. This leads into Curly asking Laurey and her aunt to go with him to the Box social, and when Laurey turns him down, he proceeds to sing Surrey With The Fringe On Top, largely addressing it to Aunt Eller!, clearly in Laureyís hearing. I found this an interesting piece of staging. Generally Michael Xavierís singing is entirely satisfactory (especially bearing in mind how difficult it is for any actor to make this song their own), he very much sounded like he meant it. While he is singing Louise is also busy, putting her boots on, lacing them up in a very professional manner; Only Louise Plowright could turn lacing her boots on stage into an art-form!- I do so like it when actors get utilise in their role some obscure little skill or trait they have acquired somewhere in their lives. (for example in the 2002 Festival Hall production of Follies Louise Gold did a particularly convincing job of miming holding a headdress high above her head). Though I donít think Gertrude Lawrence ever had to pull a pint of beer in an acting performance, but it would have been grand if she had. Back to Okalahoma! here is also some lovely interaction between the three principals currently featured, all of whom deliver their lines well, with conviction.

Now a number of the chorus come into their own. As one of them says heís hitching up some cart, because there is a party coming down from the station to go to the box social. Aunt Ellerís response is that of course sheíd lend the wagon, if she had been asked. Louise delivers these lines beautifully cuttingly, as if to tell the guy he should have asked her first before assuming she would lend the wagon, although of course she will lend it.

Here The Nationalís production had promptly shifted the action to the railroad station, but in this production we stay firmly on the farm, and the action comes to the farm, as a bunch of the chorus stand around in the spotlight, then Will Parker, played by the athletic Michael Rouse enters. His first action on entering is to momentarily life Aunt Eller off her feet!(which briefly put me in mind of the song Rich Manís World in Mamma Mia Ė the bit where two of the guys lift Donna). Soon itís into the wonderful classic Kansas City, where Michael Rouse proves himself to be a far far better singer-actor and dancer than the guy who played that part at The National. The other performer who really stands out in this number is Louise Plowright. during the first verse she joins in the dancing quite comfortably, then during the second verse, as it starts to get more complex, she delivers her line ďAnd thatís about as far as I can goĒ with real feeling and complete conviction. Itís lovely to see her get a role where the dancing required for that role so perfectly matches her capabilities, without pushing her limits. Meanwhile Michael Rouse proves himself to be an accomplished dancer demonstrating the new craze for ragtime.

Somewhere around someone passes a negative comment about Jud Fry, which elicits a cutting firm line from Aunt Eller about the fact that he is one of the hardest working hired hands sheís ever had, and two women canít run a farm on their own. The authority with which Louise delivers that line reminds me so much of the authoritative way she spoke as Donna The Dynamo running her taverna.

Having met Will Parker, itís now time to meet Ado Annie Carnes, closely followed by Ali Hakim the peddler. Aunt Eller has a bone to pick with him over an egg beater he sold her. This gives Louise another opportunity to stamp her mark firmly on the role, she is such a strong charismatic woman, you just canít imagine that peddler getting away with palming his rubbish off on her. Of course he has to try and pacify her, which he does by offering her a pair of red garters, taking her by surprise he attempts to slip one onto her, and thus gets this 5ft10Ē women down on her back across a cart, while her gets one of the garters on. Sheís needless to say pretty cross at the manhandling, however, she grabs the other garter and goes over to her rocking chair to slip it on in a more modest manner. As the pedler eventually beats a retreat, peddling his bicycle cart off-stage, sitting in opposition on a swing Laurey scolds Ado Annie for going about with the Pedler, when she is engaged to Will Parker, she defends herself, Iím Just A Girl Who Canít Say No. Natalie Casey who plays Ado Annie does a convincing acting job, of managing to make this flighty, sometimes unbelievable character into a believable character. After all in those days, young women especially had little opportunity to really get to know a man before committing to marrying him. Unfortunately her singing is her weak point. Iím used to hearing Dorothea McFarlaine on the Original London Cast album, and Natalie Casey just isnít a patch on her singing wise, nothing like as sweet or clever vocally. But she does act the part well, and out in regional theatre we canít have everything.

At last, with Many A New Day, it is Leila Benn Harrisís turn to bring Laurey to the fore. Leila Benn Harris is a fine young actress, who really made the West End production of Imagine This memorable. She is not quite so memorable with Many A New Day, nevertheless, it is still a good song and she sings nicely. Thankfully John Doyle has got us well away from the rather unconvincing staging of the film. Here the chorus of girls remain fully clothed, and are thus much more like the modest pioneer girls they are supposed to be.

Curly arrives with Gertie Cummings in tow, Amy Ellen Richardson somehow manages to turn this one into a believable character.

Then Ado Annieís father, Andrew (Pop) Carnes, turns up. He doesnít seem to much like Will Parker, and seems relieved to discover that Will has spent the $50 he won, thus no longer actually has the money. Pop then tries to get his daughter married off to the peddler, whom she has also been going out with. Alex Gianniniís portrayal makes the character rather unlikeable. But that is a perfectly reasonable way of playing the character.

Now we come to one of the showís many surprises, in this case a song I had almost forgotten about Itís A Scandal Itís An Outrage, often dropped from cast albums, and possibly even from productions, it is big number for The Peddler. Here the talented Michael Matus, who seems to be making a habit of playing splendid character roles (he had a fine comedy role in Imagine This), makes both the song and Ali Hakim very much his own.

Onto more classic ground with People Will Say Weíre In Love. At last Michael Xavier and Leila Benn Harris actually make a classic number their own. Until now while both of them had been more than entirely satisfactory in both their acting and singing, they had never quite managed to bring that little extra touch of magic so desperately needed to follow the legacy of previous productions. These roles have been played by so many great singing-actors, there are some really tough acts to follow, but at long last this pair find their way of doing it, and they find it together.

Michael Xavier continues to come into his own with the next number, dueting Poor Jud Is Daid with Craig Els. Although I am not keen on the song, despite Howard Keel singing impressively on the OLC album, I was actually quite impressed by Michael Xavierís performance of this number. Sung with less of the teasing cruelty that Howard Keel did it, this version is actually kind of moving.

This is followed by an impressive acting scene, one I had almost forgotten about, possibly because both the film and even The Nationalís production didnít quite make it that memorable, but with Louise Plowright at the fore itís unforgettable. Curly and Jud take to goading each other into shooting at knotholes, their bullets bouncing off a tin roof. The frightful noise naturally frightens the assembled company, so much that Aunt Eller has to go and investigate. Her impressive anger at the pair of them for scaring us all half to death, and then the way she reassures everyone else that itís just a couple of idiots shooting at knotholes, is truly memorable. What a powerful, commanding, and accomplished actress Louise Plowright is.

On with building up Judís character, Ali Hakaim tries to sell Jud some new photographs of half naked women, but Jud doesnít want them, what he really wants is a real woman of his own. There is one other thing heíd like, a Kaleidoscope with a hidden knife, called ĎThe Little Wonderí, but Ali Hakaim, displaying a surprising conscience says he would never deal with something dangerous like that. This leads into another surprising song, and one which is not only often dropped from cast albums, and possible productions, I donít even recall ever having heard the title before. This is Lonely Room, and it is sung by Jude. It is an extraordinary piece, in terms of plot and character development. It does help to make more sense of the plot idea of Jud having unrequited love for a woman, and in fact for Laurey. It also helps to make more sense of the classic scene which follows.

We come at last to the Act 1 Finale, what a long act this seems to have been. This last number is a big one, a true classic, and one of the pieces for which Oklahoma! is particularly well known, namely Out Of My Dreams, otherwise known as The Dream Ballet. Only in this production things are very different to normal. Usually in productions of Oklahoma! all the principal characters have their ďDreamĒ counterparts, dancers, who spend the rest of the production among the ensemble, but have to dress as the principals for this number, and dance their parts. Back in 1947 Howard Keel once got into trouble for attempting to sub for Dream Curly, when the dancer doing that part had for once gone unaccountably missing. While in 2001 The Nationalís production broke new ground in actually having Josefina Gabrielle dance her own Dream Laurey (well she happens to be a trained dancer), who had actually done dream Laurey in an earlier production. In this production, with a cast of only twenty three, itís hard to see how there could actually be enough of them to cover all the dream roles and still have enough dancers left to provide a decent ensemble for the ĎBalletí. It should be a hint that the programme doesnít give any ďdreamĒ credits, to find that John Doyle has arranged things rather differently. Here everyone actually has to be his or her own Dream character. Nikki Woollastonn assisted by Jo Morris has cleverly arranged the choreography to come up with something involving the whole company, including those who arenít really dancers. We start with Leila Benn Harris sitting on that swing, singing that classic song, three of the chorus (probably actual dancers) cleverly remove her boots and stockings, while everyone else exits. Presently Louise Plowright and Amanda Minihan lead the primarily non-dancer members of the company onto the stage, all of whom are now barefoot. Louise and Amanda are carrying between them Laureyís laundry tub, seen earlier in the show, but now it contains only one item, a very very long wedding veil. This group have been given a routine to do, and they make a surprisingly decent job of it, though it is quite obvious it has been kept simple, more modern dance than ballet, but it is striking simply for managing to make such sensible use of a group of actors who are not really dancers. This group spread around the stage in the large circle (reminding me of the scene in Mamma Mia when Donna helped Sophie into her wedding dress), they also spend a good chunk of time down on the floor, during which their movements take on an almost aerobics like quality. Presently those members of the company who are primarily dancers, come on, and take centre stage, they too are barefoot, and display their talents vigorously, before quickly disappearing, leading Leila Benn Harris, Michael Xavier, and Craig Els to mime the prophetic part of the ďballetĒ (the bit in which Curly is supposedly killed). The Dancers then return, having taken off their dresses, and now in their long underwear they represent Judís pictures having come to life. This is really a sensible use of having the girls dancing in their underwear in a production of Oklahoma! I mean that is more or less what the girls in Judís pictures would have been wearing, and it is the only time in this production you are going to get people anything other than properly dressed, like they would have been out on the frontier. A thoroughly distraught Laurey concludes the number by running into Aunt Ellerís arms, I think with Louise and Leila being last off the stage. Though Iím not totally sure of that last bit.

All in all a very impressive, if rather long, first act. One thing above all else is abundantly clear, Louise Plowright is on tip top form, very much like when she starred as Donna Sheridan in the London production of Mamma Mia. In a funny sort of way this is a striking reminder of that. The other thing really noticeable in this production, is the shear amount of time Aunt Eller is on stage. Often, during many scenes, when she is not directly involved she is sitting in her rocking chair, in the centre of the stage, as though half alert and half asleep, attentive to the action, half there and half not. It is quite obvious we are meant to be seeing the action of the show through her eyes, what a wonderful device, especially with such an actress as this to play the role.

 

For Act 2 the setting moves to the Box Social, possibly set at The Schoolhouse, semi-public buildings like that were often the focus for social events in a frontier community, where very often buildings needed to perform several functions, as there werenít many of them.

First on stage is Louise, the moment she steps out onto that stage the atmosphere is electrified. There is something about Louise Plowright, she really does have a gift for being able to grab an audience from the word go (when she wants to).As soon as the ensemble enter we find the Box Social in full swing. As Louise and the other principals lead the company with The Farmer And The Cowman. It says in the programme ĎThe Company And Willí, but really Will, Curly, and Andrew Carnes all have their moments in the spot light, and as for Aunt Eller, well she is very much the pillar of the song in almost any production of the show, and especially in this one, when we have Louise Plowright to play the part. In terms of character and singing it with conviction this is an excellent song for her. I knew it would be as soon as I read that she was to play Aunt Eller. Though her singing might have benefited from a different orchestration. However, she does a perfectly decent job with it, and gives the number of tremendous energy and joi de vie, that really sells it to the audience. The entire company join in with great enthusiasm, but it is Louise who leads them, like the excellent leading lady that she is (when given the chance). The song actually started with Alex Giannini standing in the centre of the stage, on top of a barrel, which was on a porterís trolley. He kind of led them into the first verse of the song, but very strongly supported by several other members of the company, including Louise. Then as the song degenerates into a bit of a riot, by now someone has pushed the barrel over to down stage right, Louise goes to clamber onto the barrel. She seemed to have some difficulty doing this neatly, Iím not sure if that was intentional on the part of the choreographer, but even if it wasnít, it looked like part of the action, in keeping with the character. At this she takes command of the situation, geta

a gun (somebodyís rifle), fires it to gain attention, and orders Andrew to sing the chorus of the song, basically ordering everyone to behave themselves. Which of course they do. Throughout the number there is a lot of dancing by the entire company, choreographically it is clearly based on American Line Dancing, and therefore not impossibly complicated. All the company, even those actors who are not primary dancers, look as though they are managing the routine fairly comfortably.

The number ends with them all going off to start the auction. Aunt Eller initially appears somewhat less than keen at being the auctioneer, but if thatís who they all want as auctioneer, She declares they will start round the other side of the house, and work their way back here, so they all head off-stage, leaving Will Parker and Ado Annie for All Or Nothing. In the programme notes it credits the number as being just Ado Annie, but it is in fact a duet. Michael Rouse is again pretty good, while Natalie Casey once again acts well, but her singing isnít so great. Nevertheless it is not terrible.

As Ado Annie departs, The Peddler enters, he proceeds to buy Willís various presents, so that Will now has $50 in cash, and can thus get Ado Annie. The Peddler does not actually want the girl, he prefers to be unencumbered. He will not however, buy The Little Wonder, he does have some moral scruples, however Jud Fry enters offers to buy that instead. There follows a scene with Will Parker

The Auction itself proves to be rather interesting. Normally when Iíve seen this the focus of attention has been on Curly. But here the one who actually carries the scene is the auctioneer. I really noticed just how good Louise Plowright is with that American accent, especially with lines like ďItís all for the school house, for learningĒ, and ďThis is ma nieceís hamperĒ. For the auction, Louise is standing on the back of a cart. A cart which gets well used in this production. The bidding between Ali Hakim and Will Parker for Ado Annieís hamper is quite comical, in contrast to the more serious nail biting bit between Curly and Jud. for once the audience is a little divided as to whose side they are on.

The next scene finds Jud talking to Laurey, there is an undertone to this scene, possibly of a sexual nature. Laurey finds this scary, a point which Leila Benn Harris puts an emphasis on, this reminds us perhaps of the time and place in which this show is set. One can almost feel a sense of relief when Laurey and Curly finally declare their love for each other with People Will Say Weíre In Love (reprise).

Moving quickly on to the Wedding, weíre now back on the farm. The Peddler turns up, along with his wife, Gertie Cummings, everyone is surprised heís got married. But it seems her father insisted at the point of a gun. Michael Matus really does make this a believable character. Natalie Casey gets one last acting opportunity to shine, getting kissed first by him, in a Persian Goodbye, and then by Michael Rouse in an Oklahoma! hello.

A quick costume change for Leila, now finds Laurey in her Wedding Dress, just married to Curly. Michael Xavier, along with Louise Plowright leads the company in the title song Oklahoma!In fact it seems to be rather more Louise who is leading the company than Michael! Usually, at least if the classic recordings are anything to go by, Curly tends to dominate this number, well when you have people like Alfred Drake, Howard Keel, Gordon Macrae, John Raitt, and even Hugh Jackman that is no surprise. But when you have such a powerful singer-actress as Louise Plowright, it makes good sense to let her help out. Itís very much a number for the whole company anyway.They give this classic song an almost choral quality, it is after all the Stateís Anthem. Here occurs the only place in which John Doyle has departed from the script. The final reprise is not sung at this point, it is kept for later. Instead we go into the action of Curly and Judís knife fight. Unlike the film this is a straightforward brawl, without the burning haystacks. Judís body is finally taken away on a cart, was that the same cart Aunt Eller stood on for the auction? I wonder.

The discussion as to whether Curly should be tried in a proper court the next day, or whether to convene the court there and then, brings Louise to the fore. She has a commanding stage presence, which this scene makes rather good use of, as Aunt Eller declares to the Judge, that they are not asking him to break the rules, just bend them a little. With Curly declared not guilty, on the grounds of self defence. The Company conclude with the final reprise of Oklahoma! then Laurey is taken off on her honeymoon, with Curly pulling a cart, the same cart that Judís body was removed in. The majority of the cast exit, leaving Louise with the falling leaves, Craig Els comes on and tips the box of apples, they roll across the stage, he exits, things have come full circle, we are back where the show started, it was all a memory. And with that Louise is the last to exit.

There remain the bows. And here is a lovely and very fitting surprise. The last on stage for an individual bow is our leading lady Louise, alone.Wow! What a show.

 

Iíve seen some good shows on the Chichester Festival Theatre Main Stage, including Out Of This World, How To Succeed In The Business Without Really Trying, and Music Man. But Iíve not seen anything quite this good on that stage since Louise Gold headed the cast of The Waterbabies six years ago. How wonderful to once again have on the Chichester main stage a splendid show starring a leading lady who is truly worthy of that title.

John Doyle really has done Chichester proud, directing this unusual production of a classic. He has succeeded in taking Okalahoma! away from the fictionalised Wild West of Hollywood, where everything looks far too clean and colourful, and very often unconvincingly immodest. Binnie Bowerman has given these characters wear modest sensible costumes that look like they could really have lived out on the frontier. Clothing that would not have looked so very out of place in a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel. David Farelyís set design is very simple, clever and effective, no fancy scenery, just those two off-white sheets, and a number of useful carts, and chairs and such like. The simplicity of the set means that the actors have to work that bit harder to put the show across. They canít rely on spectacular scenery or amazing special effects, or for that matter Mackintosh machinery, they are thrown more onto their own resources to create the illusion or where they are supposed to be. With a few notable exceptions, I much prefer this kind of simplicity.

There is simplicity too in Nikki Woollastonís choreography. Obviously it was always going to be tough to follow in Agnes De Milleís footsteps. Wisely Nikki Woollaston does not attempt to do anything of that sort. The choreography is well suited to the mixed abilities ofthe cast. Some of them are dancers and these people of course get more complicated things to do. Michael Rouse in particular has some impressive acrobatics. But importantly the choreography given to those who are not primarily dancers is such that it is something well within their capabilities. It also seems to fit well with the time and place in which the show is set.

Musically the breezy brilliance of Richard Rogersís is score is under Catherine Jayesís capable baton. Maybe itís her experience of conducting so often in the open air, but the orchestra play the classic score with feeling and make the whole show feel so very out of doors. However, orchestration is one area where I think this production could have been improved. Why did they use Jonathan Tunickís orchestrations? Why didnít they go the whole hog and have a new orchestration just for this production? Why on earth; Given that the direction had completely rethought the staging of production, amongst other things to see it through Aunt Ellerís eyes. And given that the choreography had clearly been done especially for this production, taking into account the size and ability of the cast. Why couldnít the production have had itís own orchestration. I suppose licensing rights can be an issue, sometimes it is only possible to obtain the rights to a show if a particular orchestration is used. Nevertheless I do think this interesting production would have benefited from having itís own orchestration., appropriate to itís particular cast. It wouldnít have been that difficult to find someone to do the job, after all Musical Director Catherine Jayes has reorchestrated many a classic musical during her years as Regents Park Open Airís Theatreís resident Musical Director, while the composer-lyricist Jason Carr has a long association with Chichester and also happens to be an orchestrator of note. It is possible that if they had had good orchestration tailored to this castthen: Michael Xavier and Lelia Benn Harris might have made more of an impact with their songs, while Natalie Caseyís performance could have been improved. And I feel sure that vocally Louise Plowrightís performance would have been even better, though she at least did pretty well with putting her parts of the songs across.

Julia Wilson-Dickson has clearly done a decent job as Dialect coach, as far as I could tell everyone sounded reasonably in accent. Louise Plowright, as I would expect, did a good job with Aunt Ellerís speaking voice. She is the kind of actress who although she does not have a natural gift for accents, she does have a facility for mastering them decently.

Bearing in mind that this is regional theatre, and therefore canít pay West End salaries, I think that Jill Green has done a good job of casting the piece, in fact although there might be a few minor rough spot generally the cast are all very well suited to their characters. Therefore the casting is excellent. It is a mixture of people who have spent almost their entire careers in regional theatre, and those who do have West End experience, in some cases indeed experience of being West End principals. There is generally good supporting performances from: Amy Ellen Richardson, Tim Morgan, Amanda Minihan, Kylie Anne Cruikshanks, Melainie Cripps, Leon Else, Michelle Francis, Matthew Gould, Eugene McCoy, Kristopher Mitchell, Darragh OíLeary, Laura Scott, and, Rebecca Sutherland. Good by regional theatre standards, at any rate, basically up to Chichesterís usual high standard. There are eight individuals who might count as principals, one of these is Andrew Carnes, played by Alex Giannini. I did not find his performance as good as when I saw him play Buddy in Follies in Northampton. I think part of the problem may have been that the standard in this production was actually higher, and while his Follies colleague had managed to raise her game tonight to match this production, he perhaps didnít have anywhere to raise his to.That said his performance is by no means bad. He generally manages to fit into his character and make his flaws part of his characterís flaws (always a useful thing to do). There remain seven principals, any one of whom by Mordden and Carrís definitions could have been the star of the show. Natalie Casey acts the role of Ado Annie well, she knows exactly what she is doing on that score, unfortunately her singing lets the whole thing down. Weíve had that sort of problem before at Chichester, sometimes involving leads, but fortunately in this production her role is not the lead, and this is regional theatre, so with her good acting she gets away with it. She is paired up with Michael Rouse, whose performance as Will Parker, I am extremely impressed by. Everso much better than the guy (Jimmy Johnston) who played that part at The National a few years ago. For a start he knows exactly what he is doing, has clearly learned his complex role well, acts decently, sings jolly well, and dancers brilliantly. He is trained at Doreen Bird College, which seems to know how to turn out a certain kind of acrobatic musical theatre dancer-singer-actor (I seem to recall that Gavin Lee was another of theirs, and so it seems is Gary Avis!). Iím sure in years to come Michael Rouse could well be added to their list of notable alumni. Meanwhile Michael Matus plays the Pedler. He is an actor who, judging by the two shows I saw him in before, whenever he is given a principal role in a stage show usually succeeds in making the most of it, and himself noticed, no matter who he has to share a stage with! Back in 1999 he did a rather splendid job as the dumb little brother Jimmy Curry in 110 In The Shade, but if his performance in the West End production of Imagine This and tonightís are anything to go by he seems to be carving out a niche for himself as a comical, slightly shady, wisecracking immigrant character who lives by his wits. Who knows, perhaps in years to come, he might one day make a great Fagin. Craig Elsís performance as Jud is one of the more unexpected ones in this eveningís show. Somehow without changing any of the script they have made so much more of this role than many productions do; and Craig Els has made Jud into a living breathing person with feels, and not a mere two dimensional villain, as is so often the case. I had previously seen him as Al Spanish in The New Yorkers, so he seems to have a knack for playing anti-heros, important, but not necessarily likeable male characters.

I thought Leila Benn Harris to be an excellent actress when I saw her play Rebecca in Imagine This, a real West End Leading Lady. She trained at Arts Educational, and they do seem to have a tendency to turn out a certain kind of principal, someone who whether or not they are actually star of the show is going to make themselves noticed. On the Chichester main stage alone think of Scarlett Strallen in The Music Man last year, or Louise Gold in The Gondoliers a few years ago. Tonight we have Leila, while the role of Laurey perhaps doesnít give her quite the scope that Rebecca did, she nevertheless does her best with it. Her Laurey is quite different to Josefina Gabrielleís. Surprisingly for an Arts Ed trained performer she does not appear to have as strong dancing skills as one might have expected. What does come out, is that she makes Laurey into more of a convincing Prairie Girl than any version of the character Iíve come across before. So often the character seems to be more a Hollywood idea of a Prairie Girl, or a tomboy, where as Leila plays her more in keeping with say a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel.In the role of Curly Michael Xavier has one of the toughest jobs. Trying to follow in the footsteps of such legendary actors as Howard Keel and Hugh Jackman is no mean feet. That he doesnít quite succeed in making the part his own is not necessarily a reflection on him. In a role that didnít have such a legacy he would probably succeed. Tonight he is not bad by any means, just not quite the sensation we have come to expect Curly to be. However he is a good steady actor and perfectly convincing in his role, singing entirely satisfactory renditions of the classic songs. For the purposes of this production it doesnít matter that he fails to set the stage alight, because he doesnít need to, there are other principals who can do that.

The biggest surprise of this unusual production is that it makes Aunt Eller in the star of the show. Fortunately we have in the form of Louise Plowright a supertrouper actress who can rise to the occasion. To borrow a line from Hot Shoe ShuffleďYou wanna to know what itís really like? Fantastic!Ē to have her where she truly belongs as a Leading Lady in a production of a legendary musical. When I first read that she was to play Aunt Eller, with memories of Maureen Lipmanís performance at The National still in my mind, I wasnít sure that the role would really be that great for her. I reckoned sheíd be good for the role though. Little did I know they were going to make her into the Leading Lady! And what a leading lady she is. Tonight she is on tip top form.. This dazzling dynamo is a real pillar of the show, just like she was when she headed the cast of Mamma Mia. How lucky can this show get! For when Louise Plowright is truly given a part that fits her talents perfectly she lights up with a sparkling performance, And when sheís got the plumb position of Star of the show she raises her game to hit the heights, with a truly West End standard performance, in fact the best even The West End could offer. From the time she first steps onto the stage at the start of the show, right down to the final bow, she is carrying the show, with strong support from all the other principals, but theyíve jolly well got to play to her high standards. The role does suit her brilliantly. Not only does it place her at the centre of the show as Leading Lady, but also the demands of this particular role are a good match for her abilities. Acting-wise she gets some jolly fine lines (I never realised how good they were until I heard her say them). Her attention to detail when she is acting a part is well utilised, particularly by making her play a character through whoís eyes and memories we are seeing the action. As for characterisation she is brilliant. I never thought of Aunt Eller as feisty, but with Louise Plowright playing her, she becomes very feisty, just like her performer. And this really makes the character. Hitherto Iíd felt Aunt Eller to be a bit well straight-laced, a bit too upstanding. But Louise has infused into her character a little bit of Donna The Dynamo. The strong-minded hardworking vivacious woman who runs her own life, and bosses the men working for her around, and wonít stand any nonsense from anyone. See the similarity? Itís exactly what the character needs to make her believable. Then there is the dancing. Compared to some singer-actresses in the big musicals Louise isnít that much of a dancer. She can manage well enough when she has too, her time in Hot Shoe Shuffle would be testimony to that. But sometimes she does struggle, and it shows (like it did when she was in Follies). One of the wonderful things about this production of Oklahoma! is that like in Mamma Mia the choreography she is required to do seems to be easily within her capabilities. As a result she displays a confidence and joi de vie that would otherwise be lacking. The only down side to this role, is that singing-wise it does not serve her well. Louise Plowright is a gifted Musical Theatre singer. She may not have the versatility or range of some of her rivals. But with a decent song, and the right arrangement she can achieve a winning performance that even more versatile rivals will struggle to match. Her recording of Does Your Mother Know for example, is better than any other version of that song I have seen or heard (including the ABBA original). Her performance of The Winner Takes It All is so brilliant that when a clip of her singing it turned up in a documentary that also included Meryl Streepís, Louiseís far eclipsed Meryl Streepís (which the documentary was supposed to be promoting). But then Louise Plowright has a peculiar knack for singing vitriol like no other performer I have ever heard. Her sensational rendition of Could I Leave You in Follies was also by far the best rendition I have ever heard of that song (eclipsing even the likes of David Kernan, and, Louise Gold!). The only draw back to Oklahoma! is that she doesnít get nearly enough opportunity to utilize her singing talents. There is the ingenious twist of basically having her lead the company with the title song, but that is largely an ensemble piece and sheís only leading it because sheís got the strongest voice. True she does a bit of singing in Kansas City, but thatís really Michael Rouseís number. She contributes noticeably to Surrey With The Fringe On Top, but even so that is still very much one of Michael Xavierís big numbers. Her own major piece is The Farmer And The Cowman, but even that is basically a song for the whole company. She does a splendid job with it, as I would expect, much like the way she headed the Mamma Mia cast singing Rich Manís World. Having seen her do that, I knew this number would suit her talents as a singer-actress well. Though, it might have suited her even better if it had been given a new arrangement. It could be that one of the reasons she was so brilliant in Mamma Mia, was not only that sheís a good singer-actress, but also that Martin Koch the musical director seems to have known how to get the best out of her. There are some singers in musical theatre who will usually turn out a pretty good performance no matter what musical direction they are given. There are others who will only turn out a good performance is the musical direction is excellent (for example Belinda Lang and Angela Richards both benefited enormously from Jason Carrís understanding of them when he arranged and played for them in Moving On). Louise Plowright is somewhere in between the two, she can turn out a decent performance with what sheís given, but her singing would benefit from arrangements tailored to her vocal talents. However, that is a minor detail, on an overall brilliant performance. It reminded me of just how stunning she was as Donna Sheridan in Mamma Mia, and why I donít want to see the film version of that musical, the stage production starring Louise was so perfect. It would be lovely to have Louise Plowright back in the West End someday, but only if she were given a part truly worthy of her talents, and that is unlikely. (Donna The Dynamo was something of a one off). But perhaps they could at least get her back in the West End in a gala, why do they never use her in the big galas?However, the important thing is to see her talents properly used. And if good a quality regional theatre, such as Chichester can make proper use of her talents, then Iíd say good for them. Iím so glad to have seen her once again command the stage in a role that not only is she good for, but that is truly worthy of her.

 

Iíve seen some good shows down here at Chichester, Iíve seen some good performances. But this is one of their best. Not least because the have on hell of a Lead. Ever so much better than both last years production of The Music Man(headed by Brian Conley), and 2005ís production of Out Of This World (headed by Anne Reid). In fact this is the best overall production, and the best lead, Iíve seen on the Chichester Festival Theatre Main Stage since Louise Gold headedThe Waterbabies in 2003! Now that was unbeatable. Itís hard for regional theatreís to hit the heights of a well led show, after all they canít pay the sort of salaries the West End does. But tonight at least Chichester has finally found itself a true winner who takes it all. This is only the second time theyíve ever had Louise Plowright here, and yet she is such a perfect actress for them, with her as leading lady Chichester are doiní fine, OK! ...Yow!

 

 

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Off Site Links:

The Chichester Festival Theatreís Official Website: http://www.cft.org.uk/

 

To read my review of another greatmusical at Chichester, The Water Babies, please click here.

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