Oklahoma

Rodgers and Hammerstein
Grange Park Opera
Theatre in the Woods, West Horsley Place

A new era may have started in Surrey’s theatrical woods, but step into the magnificent theatre and the barn doors are opening on another fresh start. Soon to be 46th state in the Union: sunny Oklahoma. The land here is grand and modernisation is in the air.

This is only the second time I have been fortunate enough to see Oklahoma live; the first, Chichester Festival Theatre's production in 2009, set the bar very high.

Grange Park Opera is no stranger to musical theatre; the last few years have seen very successful productions of Oliver! and Fiddler on the Roof, but Oklahoma has one distinct difference: casting.

This time, there is no overlap of singers from the rest of the summer season. Instead, Grange Park has brought in musical theatre talent, demanded by the dance numbers that litter Oklahoma. The results are mixed. I cannot praise highly enough the infectious energy from all on stage, the joyous choreography and brilliant acting. Unfortunately, the singing doesn't raise the roof.

There are exceptions. Laurey (Katie Hall) is spectacular, a real triple threat, who excellently transitions from rugged tomboy to vulnerable young women at the barn dance. The other vocal star is Phillip Rhodes (Jud Fry), also the only operatic member of the cast. His rich, sonorous baritone almost makes up for the fact that Jud’s song is one of the weakest musical numbers.

Oklahoma is a long musical, but Jo Davies (director) has ensured the action zips along. Francis O’Connors (set design) has captured the heat and big ranch feel. Layers of corrugated metal barn doors slide around the stage and straw bales are flung to create new locations. Vehicles onstage are always satisfying and the glorious green tractor doesn’t disappoint. Davies's attention to detail in her direction ensures that every movement onstage is done beautifully, the set changes fluid and cleverly integrated to the action.

Choreographer Andrew Wright has brought fun and hi-jinks with his take on two-steps and hoe downs. The famous dream ballet shows off how well this cast can dance and his inventive choreography with the cow-catching ropes quickly turns the action into a nightmare.

The BBC Orchestra is on fine form and it is a real treat to hear Oklahoma with the full sound world as Rodgers intended. Conductor Richard Balcombe gives a conservative interpretation, lacking any really exuberant tempi. The BBC Orchestra brings out the colour from the score but the singers could do with looking to Balcombe more often to synchronise the performance.

Curly (Dex Lee) captures this fun-loving character with easy charm and dance steps that bound across the stage as if the floor was made of elastic. Sadly, Lee lacks the depth of tone to really bring out the iconic "O What A Beautiful Morning" and his delightful word painting often leaves him behind the pulse.

Louis Gaunt makes his professional debut as Will Parker with boundless energy and youthful exuberance. Natasha Cottrial (Ado Annie) gives a similarly electric performance, but her character singing and vocal technique don’t marry up leaving her struggling with the higher passages.

The other star is Steven Serlin (Ali Hakim) who has us in stitches with his brilliant performance as the oleaginous Peddlar.

This is not as dark as CFT’s 2009 inventive interpretation, but I am pleased to say that Davies’s production does not disappoint. I leave unable to stop humming "Oklahoma", and the ear worm remains this morning.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis