Oklahoma! Festival Theatre, Chichester

Oh, what a lifeless evening
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The Independent Culture

Two grimy sheets hanging over a bare stage; drab, washed-out costumes that double as work wear and dance duds – this Oklahoma! is set on the frontier state's Poverty Row.

John Doyle is known for the productions that economy forced on him at the tiny Watermill, but Chichester doesn't dictate this kind of sad stringency. That's clearly the director's choice, as is the washed-out aspect of the performances, a bizarre approach for the show Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote at the apogee of the classic American musical theatre, for a cast expected to act, sing, and dance to the highest standards. Instead of a show radiating 1,000-watt energy and sex appeal (as did Trevor Nunn's 1998 revival), Doyle gives us one that might be subtitled "The Young and the Listless".

Indeed, so dispirited and clumsy is the whole affair, so half-baked the singing and acting, that I hesitate to criticise the unusually youthful actors, who are prisoners of a concept. I doubt it was the idea of Louise Plowright, as the stern, proper Aunt Eller, to fling herself on her back and offer her drawer-clad rump to the peddler Ali Hakim, who thrusts his head between her splayed legs like a grinning gynaecologist. There's a real grip of character and milieu. And did Leila Benn Harris really decide to play Laurey as a hard little nut whose singing is as tinny and pinched as her acting? Did Natalie Casey choose to have Ado Annie spend nearly the entire show with her nostrils raised and her mouth open, as if wondering where a bad smell was coming from? Did she think of ending "All er Nuthin'", her sparring duet with her beau, not with the traditional clinch, but by dragging him offstage while he toys, in an emasculated way, with her parasol? All this anachronism and overstatement speaks of a strangling hand that has tried to cram this exuberant show into a mean little pint pot.

While the men fare better, Michael Xavier's sweet Curly and Michael Rouse's comically worried Will Parker are operating at about a quarter the intensity they should. Craige Els's sinister Jud has the only thrilling voice, but he is literally lumbered with symbolism, shouldering a huge coil of rope through the party scene and opening and closing the show by spilling apples from a crate. There is very little dancing (though lots of walking, milling, and looming that casts dark shadows on those sheets).

The should-be big final number, with the whole cast singing the title tune, is beyond belief. As animated as a church choir, they stiffly hymn their devotion to the land and each other while facing half the audience; then they cross the stage, taking their time, and turn and face the other half. The last line, "Oklahoma, okay!" is sung as if the last word is a substitute for a shrug.

"Okay", however, would be praise too high for this misbegotten show. A more accurate summation would be "Oklahoma? Oy vey!"

Until 29 August (www.cft.org.uk)

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